The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Winning the lottery

On Saturday 4 November 1617, the archdukes of the Southern Netherlands, Albert and Isabella, granted permission to the “gentil homme Lucquois” Matthias Micheli to organize a lottery for the foundation of the “Bergen van Barmhartigheid” or “Monts de piété.” First invented in Italy in the 15th century, the Monts were public pawnbroking institutes where people could give goods as collateral to borrow money at relatively cheap interest rates.

It seems that the initiators were eager to move on with this project, because only three days later—before the Conseil de Brabant even gave its permission for the printing—Micheli appeared before notary Willem le Rousseau to enter into a contract with the Antwerp printer Abraham Verhoeven to provide the necessary lottery booklets. 1 Micheli acted as the superintendent of the “blanque,” or general lottery, which was to raise money for the establishment of the Monts. The word “blanque” in the title of the ephemeral lottery book come from the Italian word for white, referring to the color of the majority of lots, which were blank, as opposed to the few black lots, which were the winning ones. 

The contract between Micheli and Verhoeven concerned the printing of at least 200,000 copies of a lottery booklet in five different languages: Italian, Spanish, French, German, and Dutch. This enormous print run was necessary to raise the total sum of 1,250,000 florins. 2 As the records kept by Christophe Plantin and his successors demonstrate, print run of 200,000 copies were extremely rare. According to Plantin’s records (see the image below), the print runs of 25 editions produced by Jan I Moretus in 1617 fluctuated between 750 copies (of a devotional work in 8mo) and 3,050 copies (a liturgical work in 16mo). 3 The mathematical average of a print run in that year was 1,733 copies per edition. 4

List of editions produced by the firm Plantin Moretus in 1617 (left) and 1618 (right). Courtesey Museum Plantin-Moretus/Prentenkabinet, Antwerp — UNESCO World Heritage. (click to enlarge)

Although the print run was very large, only a few copies of the lottery booklet have survived. The Folger Shakespeare Library preserves one of these, a copy in French. The location of only two other extant copies are recorded, another in French and one in Spanish. 5

title page of the French language lottery booklet (click to enlarge)

The lottery must have been a success: the Brussels Mont opened its doors one year later, on Friday 28 September 1618. It was not the first one in the Southern Netherlands. There were already Monts in Ypres, founded in the 1530s, and Bruges, which dates back to 1572. 6 But in contrast to the 16th-century Monts, the Brussels branch is still in existence.

The contract which was passed before the notary stipulated that each copy of the lottery booklet should consist of three sheets folded in quarto, printed on large paper worth 2 florins (“gulden”) per ream. The printer, Verhoeven, would receive 19 florins per ream he printed, which means that he received 13 florins to cover the costs of the rest of the material needed (type, ink, and foremost the ink dabbers, and so on) and the work itself. Furthermore, the legal document determined that the forms had to be locked up securely by an assistant of Micheli. This measure was probably taken in order to prevent fraud. 7

Although lotteries were not uncommon, not many printed witnesses have survived. A simple search in Hamnet reveals that the Folger Shakespeare Library preserves two English lottery broadsheets from the latter half of the 16th century (discussed below), five works relating to lotteries from the 17th century, and some from the 18th century. These broadsheets were meant to be pinned up or pasted onto walls and consequently disappeared afterwards. The broadsheet below, a 1568 proclamation by Queen Elizabeth, extends the period of time for buying into a lottery and would have been displayed publicly.

1568 lottery proclamation (click to enlarge)

The purpose of  the following, a “very rich lotterie generall” organized in 1567, was to raise money “for the reparation of the Hauens, and strength of the Realme, and towardes such other publique good workes.” As the first line makes clear, this was a lottery “without any Blanckes” and all participants would receive “Prices.”

all tickets are winners! (click image to see all three sheets of this 1567 proclamation)

Examples from the Continent also show that  lotteries were often organized to fund public works, as illustrated by this example from a broadsheet: “Tweede loterye, gheaccordeert byden Coninck tot vorderinge vanden wercken ende fortificatie, vande Steden ende stercten opde Frontieren.” 8 Perhaps it’s to our own common good that at least a few of these publications survived the lottery of time so that we can study them today!


  1. Verhoeven would become well-known in the coming years because of the publication of the first newspaper in the Southern Netherlands, the Nieuwe Tijdingen (“New Tidings.”)
  2. See P. de Decker, Études historiques et critiques sur les monts-de-piété en Belgique (Bruxelles 1844) p. 60.
  3. Respectively: Henricus Culens, Ivbilei veteris Hebræorvm et novi Christianorvm collatio, ex officina Plantiniana, apud Balthasarem & Ioannem Moretos, 1617, STCV 6633642, and Officia propria ss. Hispanorum pro breuiario [at present not yet recorded in the STCV].
  4. cf. Museum Plantin Moretus, Arch 39, fol. 24v.
  5. Paul Arblaster, Antwerp and the World: Richard Verstegan and the International Culture of Catholic Reformation (Leuven: Leuven University Press 2004) p. 116. De Decker refers to a Dutch edition, but he does not mention where that one is kept.
  6. See P. de Decker, Études historiques et critiques sur les monts-de-piété en Belgique (Bruxelles 1844) pp. 30–31, 34; see also Berg van barmhartigheid.
  7. Cf. Fr. J. van den Branden, Ontstaan van het nieuwsblad te Antwerpen. Abrabam Verhoeven zijn leven 1575–1652 (Antwerpen 1902) pp. 50-51, with reference to “Protocollen van den notaris G. le Rousseau, 1617, fol. 200.”
  8. Brussels, Royal Library, LP 5517 c [broadsheet]


  • It just occurred to me that the best-known piece of lottery ephemera in the Folger collection isn’t even cataloged as such, since it’s from 1770 and therefore technically out-of-scope: the unique Titus Andronicus quarto has an unused Swedish lottery handbill (sometimes wrongly identified as a ticket) for a cover. Apparently the lottery was to raise money for building canal locks at Trollhättan. See for the handbill. See the Google Street view of the locks for the end result.

  • Goran,

    Thanks for this wonderfully illuminating post. I noticed that lots here are coordinated with an array of “posies” or short verses. It would be nice to know what these posies were.

    Thanks again for this piece,


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