The War of the Oaken Bucket
The people of Italy have long been infamous for their hot-headed nature and passionate temperament, not least when it comes to defending their town’s honor. So, it’s perhaps no surprise that, in 1325, two neighboring communities really did go to war over a stolen bucket, with 2,000 people killed or injured in the fighting. But, like all wars fought over seemingly trivial matters, there’s more here than meets the eye…
Fourteenth-century Italy was comprised of several city-states, chief among them Bologna and Modena. Now, as well as the usual disputes about borders and territory, these two city-states also took very different views on who should be the leader of the world’s Catholics. While Modena backed the Holy Roman Emperor, their neighbors in Bologna backed the Pope. It was this which was the underlying cause of the many skirmishes that took place during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. But the hostility never escalated above small fights at border hotspots. There was never a full-on battle, let alone a war. Until that is, some Modenese soldiers snuck across the border with designs on a precious bucket.
The bucket was installed in the main city wall, in the heart of Bologna. It was more ceremonial than practical and was usually filled with treasure and so heavily guarded. Nevertheless, the Modenese soldiers succeeded in their mission and took the bucket away with them. Humiliated, Bologna demanded it back. When Modena refused, they received a declaration of war. The two sides met at the town of Zappolino, in Bolognese territory. Despite the fact Bologna had 32,000 men and Modena just 7,000, the Battle of Zappolino ended in humiliation for them. They were routed on their own soil and, to make matters worse, another bucket was stolen from a town well.
The fighting ended as quickly as it began and the two city-states returned to a footing of cautious peace. There would, of course, be fighting in the decades and centuries to come, but the Battle of the Bucket was over in a day. The victorious Modenese held onto their trophy and to this day, a wooden bucket is proudly displayed in a Modena museum. So far, Bologna hasn’t mustered an army to win it back.
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