Mon 29 November 2021

Tribalism is killing us, wrote Tina Gharavi in our launch issue and Mike Stuchbery has a vivid example of this from history.

It’s true – our fierce determination to cling to our colours and wave our flags has led to the untimely death of multitudes, often for ridiculous reasons.

No more is this apparent than in a bloody medieval battle that erupted over, of all things, a bucket.

Things escalated dramatically when a group of Modenese soldiers… chose as their prize a bucket sitting by Bologna’s central well.

The first 400 years following the 1st Millennia AD were a slew of long, drawn-out conflicts. Perhaps the most notable squabble was between the ‘Guelphs’ and ‘Ghibellines’.

A Battle For Paradise

The ‘Guelphs’ and ‘Ghibellines’ were, by extension, the supporters of the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire respectively.

Rather than work together, the Popes and the Holy Roman Emperors, starting in the 11th Century, were engaged in a feud over who had claim to the lands of northern Italy – much of it good farming land, served by navigable rivers and easily defended.

Now, rather than one solid front-line, the war between these two interests was a lot messier, both in terms of territories controlled, and lulls in the fighting.

Modena’s Medieval Cathedral and the Torre dell Ghirlandine. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Essentially, city states would change hands between the two factions at different times, depending who was on top internally, and then they would declare war on an opposing one.

By 1325, much of the initial causes of this conflict were long forgotten. What fights between the two factions boiled down to were territory and the income that could be derived from it.

Depiction of a 14th Century fight between the Guelf and Ghibelline factions in Bologna, from the Croniche of Giovanni Sercambi of Lucca. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Only about 50km separate the cities of Bologna and Modena, but in the early 14th Century they were already fiercely proud city states, with no love lost for one another.

Bologna, you see, was ‘Guelph’, and Modena, ‘Ghibbeline’.

Streetfightin’ Men

In the months prior to what would become known as the ‘Battle of the Bucket’, raiding parties from the two struck at one another’s outposts – setting a fire here, murdering a local bailiff there. Violence simmered throughout the summer, threatening to explode.

Bologna. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Things escalated dramatically when a group of Modenese soldiers decided to strike at the very heart of the Bolognese. Sneaking in through the city’s defences, they choose as their prize a bucket sitting by Bologna’s central well. With shouts and war-whoops, they carried it out of the city, the people of Bologna only realising what had happened once the Modenese were out of the gates.

Furious demands to the Modenese were ignored, as were very explicit threats. The bucket was a trophy for all Modenese to enjoy, there was no way it was going to be returned!

This meant war.

The Battle of Zappolino

On a bright November day, 30,000 men marched on Modena, the Bolognese determined to recapture their honour. The Modenese were much reduced in terms of numbers – about 7000, but were better equipped and trained than their counterparts. They met at a place called Zappalino.

Fighting took much of the day, but, come nightfall, it was the Modenese who were chasing the survivors back towards Bologna. Behind them, over 2,000 men lay dead, many more crippled.

An ancient wooden bucket is kept in the Torre della Ghirlandina in Modena to this day. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Modenese burned down a number of Bolognese castles in their wake and pursued their foes all the way to the city gates. There, instead of laying siege, they taunted the Bolognese, capering about with a wooden bucket they themselves stole from a well outside the town, before returning home.

You can still see the bucket they took in Modena’s town hall and a replica also is hung in the city’s cathedral.

Dulce Et Decorum Est?

The ‘Battle for the Bucket’ was only one of many tiny, yet lethal, conflicts that broke out across not only northern Italy, but much of western Europe during the late Middle Ages.

Much more than we’d like to admit, these brief wars, or singular battles, were borne of barely-remembered squabbles, rather than the pressing need for resources or to protect territory.


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Feuding would remain a pastime well into the 16th Century, as far north as the German states. It would only come to an end with a series of imperial bans making it much more difficult, and a reshaping of regional interests through marriages and treaties.

As much as we bemoan the divisions in British society, we should be at least thankful that we live in a world not so easily prone to senseless violence – and especially not over something you can pick up for less than £20 at Homebase.

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