Beyond the Pail – The Unbelievable War for the Oaken Bucket

A painting of the Medieval Italian Guelphs and the Ghibellines having at each other. Which is which? We're not sure. Image courtesy WikiCommons.

A painting of the Medieval Italian Guelphs and the Ghibellines having at each other. Which is which? We’re not sure. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“The unlikely dispute was actually part of a wider ongoing feud between two warring factions in northern Italy.”

SOME WARS ARE fought for land. Others have been waged over oil. More than a few have been about abstract principles like freedom or liberty.

Then there was the14th Century war between the northern Italian city-states of Modena and Bologna. It was fought over a wooden bucket.

400px-map_region_of_emilia_romagna-svgAccording to legend, the conflict known now as the War for the Oaken Bucket broke out in 1325 after a group of Modenese soldiers dashed into the rival town of Bologna and absconded with an oak pail full of booty. To add insult to injury, the thieves brought the unlikely trophy back to their hometown and proudly put it on display. Outraged by the effrontery, the Bolognese called out their army and marched on Modena to recover the bucket… and some measure of pride.

The unlikely dispute was actually part of a wider ongoing feud between two warring factions in northern Italy: the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. The two groups were on opposing sides of an even larger power struggle between the Vatican and the Holy Roman Empire for political control of Medieval Europe. For years, and as part of this lasting conflict, the Ghibelline-supporting Modenese had been skirmishing with the Guelph-backed Bolognese. The theft of the bucket was merely the last straw.

More than 30,000 Guelph foot soldiers and 2,000 mounted warriors flocked to the Bolognese banner to take part in the coming fight. The force was commanded by none other than Pope John XXII himself. While it’s hard to imagine a modern-day pontiff at the head of an army, it was not uncommon for popes in the Middle Ages to lead armies.

The Ghemellines had a much smaller force of only 5,000 men at arms and about 2,000 cavalry.

The dispute over the stolen bucket came to a head at Zappolino. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The dispute over the stolen bucket came to a head at Zappolino. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The two armies met late in the afternoon on November 15 near Zappolino, Italy. Although outnumbered nearly six-to-one, the Modenese army routed the Guelphs in about two hours. The Bolognese withdrew in humiliation – the Modenese pursued the fleeing opponents to the very gates of the enemy city where they taunted the vanquished foes.

The clash itself, which is heralded as one of the largest battles of the Middle Ages, represented a political setback for the Guelph cause and the Papacy.

Some accounts suggest that the war wasn’t actually fought over a bucket but represented the culmination of the long-standing resentment between the two factions. Various sources suggest that the bucket was merely a trophy taken by Modenese soldiers following the battle.

In any case, history’s most famous pail has remained in the city of Modena and was viewable up until the 20th Century.

4 comments for “Beyond the Pail – The Unbelievable War for the Oaken Bucket

  1. 26 June, 2012 at 3:24 am

    Hurt pride always makes for bloody wars.

    Technically one could say, that a bucket gets used for carrying water, so this could have been a war over water as well. I guess we will see a lot more of those in the future!

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