The War Of The Oaken Bucket


We humans put a great deal of effort into institutionally killing each other.

Humans go to war for a wide variety of reasons. During World War II, we fought against rank tyranny. We didn’t start it, but by God, we were going to finish it. In Korea and Vietnam, we fought to free people from oppression. Revisionist historians have painted those wars in a different hue. However, for the rank and file who were there, that really is what typically drove the train.

We went to war in Afghanistan for any number of righteous altruistic motivations, but raw revenge was nonetheless towards the top. I still can’t watch the footage of Americans leaping to their deaths from the towers during 9/11 without wanting to break something. The Ukrainians are fighting for their national survival as I type these words. If ever there was a righteous fight, that is it.

The New York Times claims that 108 million people perished in wars during the 20th century. To put that in perspective, if each corpse were five feet tall and laid feet to head, they would circle the globe four times. Human beings clearly cannot be trusted with industrial-age weapon systems.

Folks indeed go to war over some seriously banal reasons. However, none is so stupid as that which precipitated the Battle of Zappolino in 1325. Rival city states Modena and Bologna in modern-day Italy purportedly went to war over a bucket.

Would you declare war over this? Me, neither. However, some
700 years ago something just that stupid did actually occur.

It all began, as most wars do, with a simply epic case of testosterone poisoning. It is guys who are forever doing stuff like this. Women are typically engaged in more sensible pursuits. In this case, a group of young Modenese soldiers crept into the Bologna city center and supposedly pilfered the oaken bucket used to draw water from the city’s principal well.

The bucket itself was fairly unremarkable. There were many like it. However, apparently to steal one’s water-drawing apparatus was a reasonably desperate offense. The Bolognese demanded it be returned. The Modenese refused. Tempers flared. Apparently, there were no women handy to demand that the men behave sensibly. Before you could say, “Oh, snap!” Bologna formally declared war.

Bologna amassed quite the impressive army. They fielded 30,000 infantry troops supported by 2,000 cavaliers. This imposing force was opposed by some 5,000 Modenese troops and 2,000 cavaliers of their own. The two armies met near what is now the commune of Zappolino. I suspect, at this point, somebody wished they had returned the dang bucket, but sadly, it was too late.

Combat, once joined, tends to take on a spirit of its own, like some kind of dark sentient thing. The ultimate outcome is seldom reliably predictable. Such imponderables as morale and esprit enter into the battle calculus to make combat the ultimate roll of the dice. Add to that the extraordinary stakes that turn on the outcome, and you have drama of the highest order.

The Modenese were disadvantaged in every way imaginable. The Bolognese forces held the high ground, defined by several surrounding hills. The Modenese were deployed in the low-lying plains and were outnumbered six to one. It really should have been a bloodbath, with the forces of Modena routed in disgrace. However, that’s not what happened at all.

The Modenese fought like lions. In a few short hours, the Bolognese army was broken with the forces of Modena in hot pursuit. The Modenese chased their Bolognese counterparts all the way back to Bologna, tearing through the city gates and sacking several castles along the way. They also wrecked the sluice lock on the nearby Reno river and interrupted the city’s water supply. Had they felt truly froggy, the Modenese were well positioned to lay siege to Bologna and seize the entire city. However, it was apparently just a stupid bucket. The Modenese commander stayed their hands.

Arrayed outside the city walls, the victorious Modenese army staged a mock palio, an athletic event typical of the period. The published focus of the games was to celebrate “Those sent out on the expedition and the eternal shame of Bologna.” While I obviously wasn’t there, apparently, this was a real poke in the eye for the humiliated Bolognese.

Before the Modenese forces retired from the field, they stole yet another bucket, this one servicing a well just outside the city gates. The men of Bologna looked on helplessly. Humans go to war for some of the stupidest things. In 1325, some 2,000 troops fell in combat over a pilfered oaken bucket.

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