Old source, new spring

Historic lottery tickets give a voice to women and the underprivileged

3 min
Text Lisa Hilte
Image Sebastiaan Steveniers

What did average people dream about in the late Middle Ages and the early modern age? What was going on in their minds? What was life like? Especially for women and the underprivileged, all we can do is guess, as very little information about these people has been passed along through the ages. Historic lottery tickets now offer a glimpse into their lives. PhD student Marly Terwisscha van Scheltinga is doing groundbreaking work by systematically studying this unique source. Her work lends a voice to previously understudied and neglected segments of the medieval and early modern population.  




  • Information from the late Middle Ages and early modern period about certain population groups, such as women and underprivileged people, is very scarce indeed.  

  • Lottery tickets containing personal messages from the buyers are now set to change that. 

  • Combing through an archive of ten thousand tickets, Marly Terwisscha van Scheltinga studies gender differences and political messages, among other aspects. 

Marly Terwisscha van Scheltinga is a PhD student at the Centre for Urban History (History Department) at UAntwerp. She studies how people of all classes, and women in particular, used lottery tickets to make their voices heard between 1450 and 1650. Back in the day, lotteries were quite different from our modern-day Lotto draw. 'That's right', says Terwisscha van Scheltinga. 'The lotteries that took place in the Low Countries from the fifteenth century onwards were more like folk festivals. A stage was built on the town square, where all the lots were drawn and read out. A prize – which could be great, but also a dud – was then drawn from a barrel. This spectacle continued round the clock for several days. It was similar to today's end-of-year fundraisers, like 'De Warmste Week'. The lottery tickets themselves also used to look different: 'People could ask the seller to write a message on their tickets. That way, illiterate people could also have something read out to everyone. These short messages are called lottery prose.' 

A unique, personal source 

 Terwisscha van Scheltinga's source material contains approximately ten thousand tickets with lottery prose written on them, from five Dutch and Flemish cities. The original tickets, which are spread across different regional archives, have all been digitised. 


'These tickets have never been systematically studied. We are really tapping into a new source', says Terwisscha van Scheltinga. And that source is unique: 'Lottery prose tell us things that other sources cannot. It sheds light on population groups that generally remain underrepresented in history, such as women and the less privileged. For many people from that time, this prose is even the only source we have, because official documents were written almost exclusively by men of high standing. And as these lottery tickets are a record of people's own voices, they're very personal indeed!' The content is also personal: 'Unlike, say, tax ledgers, lottery prose reveals how people felt, what they longed for, and what was on their minds.' 

Women as family money managers 

An in-depth analysis per ticket is difficult, says Terwisscha Van Scheltinga, because the texts are so short. Sometimes she studies an individual ticket in great detail because it speaks to her, but usually she compares groups of tickets with each other systematically. In doing so, she has already discovered interesting gender patterns: 'Many participants wrote down what they would do with the winnings. And women generally seem to be a bit more modest in this regard. They often say they would save the prize money. And if they do mention something they want to buy, it's something small, like a new dress. Men think bigger: they want to buy a horse, a house, or even a ship.' (laughs) 


Terwisscha van Scheltinga then links these results to insights about gender roles at that time. 'In the late Middle Ages and early modern age, women were often the managers of the household. This also included a financial role: they managed the money and kept a close eye on the family's income and expenses. We see that responsibility reflected in their lottery prose.' 

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The lotteries that took place in the Low Countries from the fifteenth century onwards were more like folk festivals, a spectacle that continued round the clock for several days

Marly Terwisscha van Scheltinga

Political messages 

Finally, the lottery tickets were also a medium for messages that could not be expressed elsewhere, such as expressions of political discontent. 'It was a turbulent period in the Low Countries, with the Eighty Years' War, the Reformation and the Great Iconoclasm. We found a lot of anti-clerical messages on the lottery tickets.' However, such messages should be taken with a grain of salt: 'A statement could be serious, but there were also many jokes about the clergy — not unlike how we mock politicians today. The sex lives of priests and monks proved to be a popular target of ridicule.' Over time, however, the social context became more grim. The lotteries did not remain an uncensored spectacle: in Delft, for example, an inquisitor was sent to the draw to question people about anti-Catholic messages. Prose was also sometimes redacted before it was read aloud. 'In more than one way, people tried their luck', concludes Terwisscha van Scheltinga. 'A folk festival that continues day and night can never be monitored completely. Certain messages definitely slipped through the cracks!' 

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