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A War That Pail-s in Comparison to Any Other: The Medieval Bucket War

A War That Pail-s in Comparison to Any Other: The Medieval Bucket War

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The medieval city-states of northern Italy were more competitive than any given Kardashian battling her sister for more Snapchat followers. Time and again, the cities of Modena and Bologna put their dukes up, but the former pulled one over on its rival by stealing a bucket...that later inspired an epic poem.

In 1325, after a series of back-and-forth skirmishes, the Modenese planned a sneak attack to show how they were better than the Bolognese. They went in and out of Bologna without their enemies noticing; as a trophy, the Modenese stole a bucket from a well, a symbol of their successful covert ops skills and one-ups-manship. This ‘what-the-bucket’ move became legendary.

Why were Modena and Bologna going at it for so many years? In the 14th century, the Holy Roman Empire lost its Teutonic touch on northern Italy broke off. As a result, “the Italians [had] a big power vacuum to fill, and the result was city-states and petty princedoms,” says Carrie Beneš, associate professor of medieval and Renaissance history at the New College of Florida. No centralized power had ever really ruled in the area, so it was natural that each city was all for itself—and against its neighbors, observes Beneš. City feuds resulted from competition over trade, land, and resources.

Medieval Bologna

Medieval Bologna (public domain)

The area was also split on ideological lines. Back when the Holy Roman Emperor still had a bucket list in Italy, he maintained that he was the rightful lord of the land; in contrast, the Pope said he was master of his Italian domain. The pro-pope folks, a.k.a. Guelfs, included the citizens of Bologna, and the pro-imperial faction, the Ghibellines, held it down in Modena. No wonder these two cities, only 25 miles apart, didn’t like each other: They couldn’t even agree on who controlled local resources, let alone on who should rule them!

Depiction of a 14th-century fight between the militias of the Guelf and Ghibelline factions in Bologna

Depiction of a 14th-century fight between the militias of the Guelf and Ghibelline factions in Bologna (public domain)

From these feuds came a sneak attack that had the Bolognese screaming, “Bitch better have my bucket!” Why did the Modenese assign such importance to one pail? City-states “had a tradition of attaching meaning to particular items,” which “became touchstones of civic honor,” says Beneš. “These north Italian cities came up with elaborate public ways of expressing their own civic history, prestige, and wealth—funnelling [ sic] energy and money into expressing specifically civic solidarity as opposed to, say, family solidarity,” adds Beneš.

For Modena, that meant showing off their Bolognese bucket to show how they could sneak into their rivals’ city and escape with a trophy. For Siena, that came in the form of the brutal horse race called the Palio di Siena, where 17 different districts, or contrade, bribe and shove their candidate to victory. That’s truly beyond the pail!

The Palio di Siena

The Palio di Siena (public domain)

The Bolognese reacted militarily, but lost again on November 15, 1325, when the Modenese defeated them at the Battle of Zappolino. The battle was “the story of an underdog’s triumph,” according to Beneš, for the Modenese; they had fewer soldiers and resources than Bologna, but won, perhaps through the luck o’ the bucket. As Beneš notes, the Modenese were fighting for their rights; in this period, “winning a war with your neighboring city-state meant you could take it over,” Beneš says.

In 1325, the city-states of Guelph Bologna and Ghibelline Modena fought over a civic bucket in the War of the Bucket, where the famous Battle of Zappolino was fought.

In 1325, the city-states of Guelf Bologna and Ghibelline Modena fought over a civic bucket in the War of the Bucket, where the famous Battle of Zappolino was fought. (public domain)

Three hundred years later, Modenese poet Alessandro Tassoni fell in love with this bad-ass bucket, still hanging in a tower in his hometown. He decided to celebrate his city’s history, which pail-ed in comparison to the epic poem he wrote about it. In La Secchia Rapita, published in 1622, Tassoni mocked the historic conflict by portraying the theft of the bucket as a catastrophe as big as the Trojans stealing Helen in Greek myth. His poem was an example of the genre of “heroic-comic poetry,” which Stefano Gulizia, adjunct assistant professor of Italian at the City University of New York, defines as “a ‘mixed genre,’ capable of pleasing both the learned and the peasants.”

To research the bucket’s history, Tassoni probably used pro-Modenese accounts that already exaggerated his city’s ‘heroic” role in stealing a wooden tool. “I think Tassoni was probably thinking of medieval chronicles or local accounts, which were aggrandizing,” says Gulizia. He also had fun with his poem, adding in absurd and entertaining incidences, Gulizia notes, such as when “he has a mule play chess at the end of the first canto.” La Secchia Rapita remained popular in later centuries, getting republished in Italy and translated into French and English. In 1772, Italian composer Antonio Salieri, capitalizing on the popularity of comedic opera, debuted a work of the same name at the Viennese court.

A replica bucket is now on display in the Ghirlandina Tower in Modena, the bucket’s ancient home, while the real treasure is kept in the secure Palazzo Comunale.

A replica bucket is kept in the Ghirlandina Tower in Modena, pictured

A replica bucket is kept in the Ghirlandina Tower in Modena, pictured (public domain)

Top image: Old wooden bucket. Credit: Olexandr / Fotolia

By Carly Silver


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Pail jokes are on my bucket list.

Come on, Helen. Lighten up, this is a fun article full of pail jokes that pale in comparison to other bucket jokes.

Helen, each use of "pail" in such a manner was intended as a pun. The tone of the article was lighthearted, as indicated by such phrases as "what-the-bucket." We definitely do understand the proper usage of each version of "pale/pail," but tried to have fun with this story.

I didn't read it, if the writer doesn't know the difference between a pail as in a bucket and pale as in paling into insignificance, then it doesn't inspire confidence that they know their history either. Not good enough!

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Carly Silver

As an assistant editor for Harlequin Books, Carly Silver knows what makes a good story; as an ancient historian and lecturer, she serves as a tour guide through antiquity. The former ancient and classical history expert for, she... Read More

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