The wine porters or schroders of medieval Bruges (now part of Flanders in Belgium) had the monopoly on unloading barrels of wine in the city’s port to be dragged to customers’ homes and lowered into their cellars. It was a lucrative craft, because the porters were allowed to levy taxes on the imported barrels and keep the money for themselves in lieu of wages.

The office was a privilege granted for life and awarded by the city for a fee. When a schroder died or was fired, a replacement was not found by way of a recruitment process, as it would be today. The job was raffled off. Chance determined who got the job and the economic rent that went with it.

As early as the thirteenth century, these lotteries were held for other matters too, such as allocating prime positions of market stalls, and the proceeds went to fund public works like strengthening the city walls and ramparts.

The lottery goes public

In 1441, when the schroder’s craft of a man named Pieter Den Hondt was due to be raffled off, the city authorities made an important decision. In addition to the first prize of the municipal office of schroder, additional cash prizes of varying amounts would be offered. As a result, large numbers of people wanted to take part, even if they had no intention of becoming a schroder, meaning that a lot more money ended up in the coffers of the Bruges city administration.

Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy

The move was a welcome development, helping the city to pay down a huge fine – the equivalent of several years of the municipal budget – imposed by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, as punishment for the 1436 – 1438 revolt by the Bruges guilds. Instead of placing the burden on its citizens to pay this amount through higher taxes, the city decided to offer cash prizes in the lottery to coax them into buying a ticket voluntarily.

The idea quickly took root. Other cities in the region sent envoys to ask for advice and soon copied the Bruges example. Over the next few decades, at least 82 lotteries were created across the Low Countries, before spreading to Germany, Rome, Genoa, and Venice. By the sixteenth century, lotteries existed all over Europe. Even the name given to the 1441 event in Bruges, lotinghe – which is based on the Middle Dutch word “lot”, meaning “fate” – would be adopted by many other languages: lotteria, loterie, lottery, lotereya, etc.

“We are proud to be celebrating the anniversary of the world’s first cash lottery in 1441. A lot of things have changed in 580 years, but the Bruges aldermen’s ability to innovate, inspire the populace, and share their experience with other cities undoubtedly helped to lay the foundations for the vibrant worldwide lottery community we know today.”

– Jannie Haek, CEO, Belgian National Lottery

Collective fun, collective benefit

These very early lotteries had all the essential characteristics of the games we know today: They were public events, anyone could take part, and everyone had the same chance of winning. The additional cash prizes persuaded large numbers of people to play, and although the tickets were not cheap – the equivalent of several days’ wages – they were affordable by any burgher or merchant in medieval times. Players would not run the risk of financial ruin in a reckless game of chance, but would just try their luck for a bit of fun.

Of course players hoped to win a prize, but the collective aspect of taking part and attending the draw together was just as important. The medieval lotteries inevitably turned into festivities. A stand would be erected in the marketplace so the masses could gather for the draw. As trumpets blared, an “innocent hand”, the drawperson, would solemnly pull the names of participants from a basket, and a reader would announce whether or not they had won a prize. The habit of writing a saying or poem (often salacious) on the lottery ticket instead of one’s own name soon developed, causing hilarity when it was read aloud from the stage.

Nearly 600 years later, this underlying objective of having fun together while collecting funds for good causes still inspires lottery players all over the world and will continue to drive the lottery industry forward. By finding innovative solutions to its own challenges, and sharing the secrets of its success with other jurisdictions, the burgemeesters of medieval Bruges laid the foundations for the worldwide lottery community we know and love today!

“Good causes around the world today owe a debt of gratitude to Bruges’ city leaders during medieval times for their foresight and pragmatism. Lottery players everywhere have embraced the same sense of collective responsibility and upheld the underlying principle of having fun together for the greater public good.”

– Rebecca Paul Hargrove, WLA President

To mark the pioneering 1441 lottery in Bruges, the Belgian National Lottery is organizing an exhibition in December on the origins of the game in medieval Flanders. A book is due to be published, and there will be a city walk using virtual reality to immerse participants in the ambiance of the draw as it was then. Special draws of Extra Lotto and EuroMillions will also be held in Bruges to celebrate the anniversary.

To coincide with the 1441 anniversary celebrations, an EL legal seminar with WLA support will be held in Bruges on December 2 – 3, 2021. The seminar will focus on the potential role of taxation in encouraging responsible gaming and quelling the rising tide of illicit and unregulated gaming activities.