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DEC. '21


An unprecedented initiative in Bruges in the Middle Ages would, unbeknownst to those involved, lay the foundations of what is known around the world as 'a lottery' 580 years later. At the time, Bruges was a thriving metropolis but a hefty fine imposed by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, and the costs incurred by frequent rebellions, meant that alternative ways had to be found to fund causes that benefited the community without having to levy additional taxes. Like today, this was not a popular measure in the Middle Ages.

The ingenious plan to organise a lottery with various prizes to collect voluntary contributions and use the proceeds to pay for collective needs proved to be a hit. This historic decision nearly 600 years ago would change the European lottery landscape forever.


Ontfaen van den lotene van der scrooderie van Pietren Den Hont (…) Item ghegheven van den prisen ende andren diverschen costen.’ This is the start of a short entry in the Bruges city ledger for the year 1441-1442. For those who find Middle Dutch difficult to understand: 'ontfaen' is our present 'received', the 'lotene' is the lottery and the 'scroderie' is a medieval craft. So-called wine schroders had a monopoly on unloading barrels of wine in the port of Bruges, after which they were towed to the homes of their customers and lowered into their cellars. It was a lucrative job, because the schroders were allowed to levy taxes on the imported barrels and keep this money for themselves as wages.

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Bruges city ledger 1441-1442

The 15th century ‘birth announcement’ from Bruges is no longer an easy read in the 21st century. This is what it says:

Received from the lottery organised for the purpose of raffling off the profession of “schroder” (a job that could be explained as a person who oversees excise duty cash flows) held by Pieter den Hont, 633 ponden [pounds], 7 schellingen Vlaamse Groot [shillings, ‘Grand Flemish’]. Certain expenses must be deducted, to wit 2 pounds Vlaamse Groot paid to Pieter (who is likely the man who held the title the previous year). In addition, 60 ponden [pounds], 14 schellingen [shillings], and 4 denieren [pennies] Vlaamse Groot [Grand Flemish] was spent on various prizes, and other costs.

The final tally is calculated, showing there is 511 ponden [pounds], 17 schellingen [shillings], and 4 denieren [pennies] left over. This is converted into ponden Parisis [Paris Pounds], a currency that is used by the Burgundians.”

If a schroder died or resigned, a replacement was not sought through an application process, as it would be today. The job was raffled off. As such, chance determined who got the job and the corresponding salary. Such lotteries (also of other posts, such as that of the best place to put your stall on the market) can be found in the archives of several cities as early as the thirteenth century onwards.

But what made the Bruges lottery of 1441 - where the role of Schroder as previously carried out by a certain Pieter Den Hont was raffled - so special was that there were other prizes as well. Cash prizes, from big to small amounts. So many more people could participate than just those with the ambition to become a schroder. The lottery became a public event. It also brought more money into the coffers of the organiser, the Bruges city council. And this was necessary, because it had to pay a hefty fine to Duke Philip the Good, as punishment for the Bruges guilds rebelling against him. Rather than tax its citizens to raise this amount, the city enticed them to voluntarily buy a lottery ticket.

The idea quickly caught on. Other cities, always looking for new sources of income, copied Bruges' example. This happened first in the immediate vicinity, in other cities in the Burgundian Netherlands: Sluis, Ieper, Ghent, Lille, Nieuwpoort, Oudenaarde, Antwerp, Leuven... Between 1441 and 1500, at least 82 lotteries were organised in the Low Countries (the majority still in Bruges, but from the sixteenth century, the focus shifted to Antwerp). Lotteries also appeared in Germany from 1470 onwards, and it was the lotteries in Rome, Genoa and Venice which made the Italian word "lotto" - derived, like "lottery", from the Dutch word "lot", chance - the internationally recognisable brand name from 1504 onwards. As such, the lottery followed the path of the trade routes of the time, from the Netherlands through Germany to northern Italy. By the sixteenth century they were popping up all over Europe.

The organiser’s aim, usually a city but sometimes also a private organisation, was obviously to make a profit. But this was used to finance collective needs: strengthening the city walls, building a hospital or a church, or paying off debts, as in the case of that first draw in 1441. This social aspect is still an essential feature of a lottery too. In 2020, the National Lottery of Belgium provided support worth 185,300,000 euros, for numerous projects and associations with a humanitarian, social, sporting, cultural and scientific purpose.




In the middle of the 9th century, the daughter of the then king of West Francia was abducted by Baldwin I, the first Count of Flanders, also known as Baldwin Iron Arm. Charles the Bald, her father, may not have been happy about what happened, but nevertheless felt obliged to give his new son-in-law an area to rule. So he gave him the Pagus Flandrensis. The area covered both the coastal plain and sandy area beyond.

The Merovingian kings had already shown interest in this area as well as the first abbeys. It was populated by communities that showed a very strong cultural affinity with the Anglo-Saxons, as evidenced by the housing construction, material culture and even the coins (sceattas) they used.

Yet at that time, it was still a blank area on the map of Europe. Baldwin I and his heirs succeeded in putting the area on the map and immortalising it in the history books. They did this by winning over the stranded “free people”, allowing more or less smooth passage to the great Viking army, gaining important military insight from their relatives in the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, developing productive agricultural land and adopting the administrative and entrepreneurial trade policies of important centres of regional growth.

In a relatively short period of time, the dynasty managed to strike a delicate balance between the county of Flanders, the king of France and the autonomy of ever-growing urban centres such as Bruges. Already in the Early Middle Ages, the bilingual county of Flanders actually managed to assume somewhat royal allures. The county offered manpower to the French king and to the German emperor, and it spanned the present-day provinces of West and East Flanders, French Flanders and Zeelandic Flanders.

The difficult balance between king and count, and between count and cities such as Bruges, Ypres and Ghent, would determine Flanders’ history for the next 400 years. Of course, there were plenty of ups and downs, but mainly successes. Flanders intervened in the Battle of Hastings, set up hospitals, founded the Latin Empire in Constantinople, and made world news in 1302 with the Battle of the Golden Spurs. Female succession was held in high esteem under the motto “better a woman from here than a man from elsewhere”, and the cities made sure this rule was respected.

Bruges, Ghent and Ypres were all among the most important cities in Western Europe and were the driving forces behind trade, textiles, wealth, and economic and financial innovation. Their autonomy was also respected in administrative matters and jurisdiction. At the time of his death in 1384, Louis of Male ruled not only as Count of Flanders, but also as Count of Nevers, Count of Rethel, Count of Burgundy (La Franche-Comté) and Count of Artois. His only daughter, Margaret of Male – on her mother’s side also the heiress of the Duchy of Brabant – was perhaps not the most beautiful, but certainly the most coveted bride in Europe. Countess Margaret’s marital troubles, however, read like a sad novel.

Burgundians: profligate squanderers with a great thirst for control

Ultimately, her marriage to Philip the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy, heralded a new era. Margaret’s library was perhaps ten times larger than Philip’s. Today, this would only mean that she is well-read, but at that time it was also about power, influence and priorities. Burgundians squandered their wealth and had a great urge to control. Their ambitions far outweighed the interests of the Flemish cities with their embryonic urge for enterprise, democracy, participation and self-determination. The county of Flanders and its cities were seen as cash cows that only existed to support Burgundian megalomania. More than 50% of the count’s court, military expeditions and crusades were financed by Bruges, Ghent and Ypres.

avant la lettre

Lotteries: crowdfunding avant la lettre

Resistance was punished with taxes. So-called bedes followed in rapid succession during this 100-year period of Burgundian rule. It was during this period that, for the financing of public goods and services, Bruges started organising lotteries as an alternative to extra taxes and “assizes”. It was a form of crowdfunding before the word even existed because the simple fact was that sensible things had to be financed too.

The tide turned again when Charles the Bold died in 1477 at the Battle of Nancy. Mary of Burgundy was forced to retreat to her Flemish territories and once again had to grant great freedoms to the Flemish cities and tolerate far-reaching participation. Her sudden death in 1482 sparked an unprecedented battle over her succession.

Heavy punishment for Bruges

The Flemish cities refused to recognise her husband Maximilian I, crown prince of the German Holy Roman Empire, as guardian of her minor son Philip. The cities sensed their chance and, between 1483 and 1492, initiated the struggle for a completely independent Flanders with the support of several Dutch and Brabant cities such as Brussels, Leuven and Tienen. Maximilian I was even imprisoned in Bruges. This was unseen in Europe at the time. Mechelen and Antwerp opportunistically sided with the German king and, in doing so, dealt the death blow to the budding Flemish independence. Antwerp in particular was amply rewarded.

Bruges was severely punished and had to demolish its city walls and allow swans on its canals forever. Diamond dealers, goldsmiths and bankers were forced to move to Antwerp. One 80-year war later, it would appear that Antwerp’s choice brought them the Spanish Habsburgs. The fiction of the Southern Netherlands and the phenomenon of the Dutch speakers in Belgium was born, with “Flanders” being a very cynical pars pro toto. Meanwhile in Bruges, the lottery phenomenon had been discovered, and lotteries would continue to be organised as a solution for the most urgent collective needs in a disastrous financial situation. Other cities in the Low Countries and beyond adopted the idea, following the example of Bruges. The lottery went global.


Copyright images: Timescope, Universiteit Gent; Stadsarchief Brugge; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Nationale Loterij; Bayerische Staatsbibliothek; Phoebus Foundation; Brugse Musea; Universiteitsbibliotheek Gent; Koninklijke Bibliotheek van België (KBR); Visit Bruges, Jan Darthet

"I consider the 1441 lottery as crowdfunding avant la lettre, because what they funded with their draws were initiatives that citizens cared about. In fact, the National Lottery today is a big national raffle where participants play for a small amount of money. You hope to win, but you also know that you are making a nice contribution to a good cause. It means you win, no matter what."

CEO National Lottery

Photo: Thomas De Boever

"The first draw had to be something like this: two baskets on a wooden stage, one basket holds all the tickets, with names on them and often a short phrase or verse. The other basket holds blank tickets and tickets with prizes. Since transparency is key, each ticket was drawn - and announced in a loud voice. It must have been an amazing experience."

Senior lecturer of Medieval History, University of Antwerp

Photo: Thomas De Boever

"Bruges was the place to be for anyone who was anyone in creative, artistic, or technological circles at the time. It was the central place where raw materials came in and there was plenty of capital to finance projects. In Bruges, all information flows came together, and it was dispersed very quickly. Later, Venetians participated in the draw in Bruges, and vice versa. Using the existing networks, the lottery emerged as an international event."

Professor of Medieval History, University of Ghent

Photo: Thomas De Boever
CEO National Lottery

Photo: Thomas De Boever
Senior lecturer of Medieval History, University of Antwerp

Photo: Thomas De Boever
Professor of Medieval History, University of Ghent

Photo: Thomas De Boever