Medieval Italy was a complicated place, full of backstabbing political intrigues and competing city-states. Fromthe 12th until the 16th centuries northern Italy was split between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, two factions who supported the Pope and the Holy Roman Empire respectively. This quarrel was essentially about primacy of power. The Holy Roman Emperors claimed that as the “Roman Emperor” the Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, should be recognized as the ultimate arbiter of God’s will and that they should have final say over the election to the papacy. The Pope, Alexander III, on the other hand, claimed that as it was the Pope who crowned the Holy Roman Emperor he was ultimately the source of the Emperor’s power and so closer to God. The struggle came to represent internal struggles of the Holy Roman Empire as the two factions came to adopt the names of the German houses that competed for the Imperial crown. The Guelphs owed their name to Welf, the family name of the Dukes of Bavaria. The Ghibellines took their name from Waiblingen castle, the seat of the Hohenstaufens in Swabia.
This struggle had been started when Frederick Barbarossa had invaded Italy, in 1176, with the view to forcing his claims on the papacy. In response Alexander III established an alliance known as the Lombard League to drive out the foreign invader. The decisive Battle of Legnano turned into an historic victory for the papacy and Barbarossa was driven out of Italy. However, this conflict left behind the rival Guelph and Ghibelline factions. The subject of this article is a rather bizarre conflict that took place between the Guelph city of Bologna and the Ghibelline city of Modena, a conflict that killed thousands and altered the balance of power in northern Italy. The cause of this war must be ranked among the most ridiculous in world history: The war was started because someone stole an oak bucket.
149 years since the war between Barbarossa and Alexander III, a squad of soldiers from Modena broke into the city of Bologna and stole a large oak bucket full of loot. This theft was the last straw in a series of raids that had been exchanged between the two sides for more than a century. Earlier in the year the Bolognese had raided and burnt several Modenese fields. The Modenese proudly exhibited this theft which outraged the Bolognese. To appease Guelph and Bolognese honour Bologna declare war on Modena. This war, started over a simple bucket, would end in complete defeat for Bologna and would mark a reversal in the Ghibelline fortunes which had been on the decline since Barbarossa’s defeat more than a century earlier.
Bologna summoned a mighty army from the Guelph cities. 30,000 men-at-arms and 2,000 knights flocked to the Bolognese banner and the Pope himself, John XXII, led the army to take back the bucket. Modena and the Ghibellines, by contrast, were only able to raise 5,000 men-at-arms although they were able to match the 2,000 knights of the Guelphs. The two armies met on the afternoon of November 15th at Zappolino. Despite being outnumbered 6-1 and losing a larger percentage of men (both sides lost roughly 2,000 men) the Modenese managed to completely rout the Bolognese in just two hours of battle. The Modenese pursued the Bolognese all the way to the walls of Bologna where they flaunted their victory before the humiliated Guelph forces.
The battle of Zappolino is said to have been one of the largest battles of the Medieval era and it had been fought, not for politics, land or romance, but over the theft of an oak bucket. In this conflict more than four thousand people had lost their lives and an entire half of northern Italy had been completely humiliated. The bucket which was the cause of so much anguish was kept by the Modenese and to this day it remains in the bell tower of the cathedral, the Torre della Ghirlandina. The war had cost the Guelphs their superiority which they had won from Barbarossa more than 100 years before and it would be the Ghibellines who would dominate for the next century or so.
The conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibellines would drag on for centuries, finally ending in 1529 when Charles I of Spain was elected Holy Roman Emperor (at the age of only 20) and would go on to assume control over much of Italy.