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The Library of Renaissance Symbolism
The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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Latin: Sortes
French: Sorts, Loteries
English: Lotteries

Authority: Menestrier 1694

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     Lotteries fall into the same category as divinations, oracles and dreams as a mechanism to foretell the future or make a choice between future options and all of these were commonplace in medieval and Renaissance times. The lottery resonated with a society which still subscribed to the tradition that chance or fate governed the fortunes of man. This ancient belief was emphasized by the frequent depiction of the goddess Fortuna shown on a wheel or globe which could roll in any direction and with a lock of hair which should be grasped.

     One of the most popular certainly amongst the educated was the Sortes Virgilianae, the Virgilian Fates, which consisted simply of opening the pages of Virgil’s Aeneid and reading the first thing that came to the eye. Alternatively, the same thing could be done with the Bible. There were many anecdotes as to the unexpected success of this method one of which is described in Rabelais 314; no doubt there were many occasions we do not hear about when the operation was a failure The emblem book was also often employed as a lottery; the book was opened at random and the selected emblem was interpreted for its relevance for the reader. At the back of Wither’s Collection of Emblemes of 1635 there was a revolving paper dial which could be used for this purpose and Wither got the idea from an earlier book the Veridicus Christianus by Jan David from 1601. Another method of selecting the emblem was by inserting a pin between the closed pages of the book. This technique is actually depicted in the frontispiece to the Openhertighe Herten, the Openhearted Heart, by van der Velde a compilation of heart emblems written between 1618 and 1627.

     Menestrier (1694 398) gives many other examples of the different methods of lottery: the use of dice, the chance meeting of animals or people, the song of birds, the casual disposition of objects. Other mechanisms included writing the names of those who were competing for municipal office on cards and drawing them from an urn or putting the names of such competitors on burning candles; the last to remain alight was the winner.  Perhaps surprisingly, public lotteries to raise money for public works were also quite common in the late Renaissance. The first such lottery in England was held in 1569. 40,000 tickets were sold at 10 shillings each, a huge sum, and Queen Elizabeth herself wrote a poem to commemorate the event.

See also: Divinations, Dreams