In a Nutshell
In 1352, Italy was a mess of political agendas and feuding families. The two city-states of Bologna and Modena had been rivals for years. Backed by the Pope and the Roman Emperor respectively, border skirmishes were part of everyday life. One day, the Modenese snuck into a Bolognese castle and stole a bucket full of loot. After the Modenese refused to return the bucket, a war was declared by Bologna. In a single battle, the Modenese managed to overcome an army much larger than theirs and keep their bucket. The original oak bucket is still displayed today.
The Whole Bushel
As was commonplace during the medieval period, tension in Italy was caused by religious politics. The Bolognese believe the Pope was the true leader of Christianity while Modena maintained that it was the Roman Emperor. The two cities were only 31 miles apart, and border skirmishes were a normal occurrence. After an attack in 1296, fighting and tensions increased over the next 30 years. Under the rule of Rinaldo Bonacolsi, Modena carried out increasingly aggressive attacks on Bologna. The Pope responded by offering afterlife indulgences to any who harmed Bonacolsi and his property.
In September of 1325, a handful of Modenese soldiers snuck into a fort that had just been won by Bologna. They managed to get into the center of the town and steal an oak bucket filled with recently won loot. When the Bolognese found out, they were furious and demanded the return of the bucket and its loot. The Modenese refused, so the humiliated Bolognese declared all-out war on Modena.
The ‘War of the Oaken Bucket’ had just one battle and was fought on the 15th of November 1325. The Pope managed to muster a force of 32,000 men, but only 2000 of those were knights on horseback. The Pope himself led the army as was commonplace during medieval years. In contrast, the Modenese only had 7000 men, with 2000 of those being knights on horseback. The fighting is reported to have begun as the sun was setting and was over by nightfall. Despite the contrast in numbers, the Modenese had the tactical advantage of higher ground. The inflated Bolognese force was badly trained and ill-equipped. Most of their force was quickly chased back to the safety of their city. The Modenese focused their attack on the surrounding castles and captured 26 nobles in the process. Around 2000 men in total died in the battle. The Modenese undoubtedly won the war and the battle – but to add insult to injury, they also stole another bucket.
Although a peace treaty was formed in the next year, the wars continued until the cities were forced to unite and push back Spanish invasion in 1529. Today, there are two buckets still on display. The one in Palazzo Comunale is the original one that was stolen back in 1325.