The Oak Bucket Challenge



Pictured above is a bucket. It’s made of oak. It hangs in the town hall of Modena, Italy and has a name — the Secchia Rapita. As buckets go, either fact there would be pretty special — not many buckets have names, and similarly, it’s rare to find one on display. So yes, the Secchia Rapita is a very important bucket.

Just ask the 2.000 people who died over it.

Those 2,000 people died in what is now known as the War of the Bucket, a skirmish in 1325 between Modena and neighboring Bologna. A bucket is a pretty stupid thing to go to war over, but flash points to hostilities are often incredibly silly when looked at in a vacuum. (See today’s “From the Archives” link for another example.) To understand what happened between Modena and Bologna, one has to go back an additional two centuries, at least.

In the second half of the 11th century, Europe found itself in the midst of a power struggle. On one side were the ruling monarchs at the time, most notably the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire. On the other side were the Popes of the era. At issue was the right to appoint bishops and abbots, the local leaders of the Church. Both sides saw this as a proxy for whether the Pope or the Emperor was the true emissary of God, and therefore, both wanted the authority to choose the region’s spiritual leaders. The conflict, now known as the Investiture Controversy, came to an end in the year 1122 when the two sides reached an agreement known as the Concordat of Worms. Under the Concordat of Worms (“Worms” is a city in Germany, by the way), the papacy retained the right to select bishops, but the empire had some say — limited to the secular needs of the ruling government. The Concordat is generally seen as a papal victory, and it has been rarely challenged otherwise.

But there is one notable exception. For centuries after the Concordat of Worms, two Italian factions, now known as the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, kept up the fight, with the Guelphs favoring the Pope and the Ghibellines the Emperor. The two sides skirmished throughout the region and era, and Bologna and Modena were part of those battles; Bologna was a Guelph stronghold while most citizens of Modena favored the Ghibellines. For decades throughout the late 13th and early 14th century, the two cities engaged in various hostilities, destroying each other’s property and murdering the citizens of the enemy city.

One of the more peaceful invasions — initially, at least — occurred in the summer of 1325. A small group of soldiers from Modena managed to get through the walls of Bologna’s central city and, while there, stole the oak bucket pictured above and filled it with items they plundered. The soldiers brought the bucket back home, knowing full well it was the property of the hated Bolognese — “Secchia Rapita” literally translates to “kidnapped bucket” — and held it up as a token of triumph. Despite Bologna’s insistence that the Modenese return the oaken bucket, Modena refused.

So Bologna declared war. What was is now known as the War of the Bucket began when Bologna sent 30,000 men and 2,000 cavalry from its gates to defend its honor and reclaim the bucket. Modena countered with 7,000 strong — 2,000 cavaliers but only 5,000 footmen. Despite being outnumbered, the Modenese were better prepared and armed. Roughly 2,000 men died in the battle, resulting in one of the most bloody battles between the two cities. Ultimately, Modena triumphed, sending the Bolognese army back within the walls of Bologna.

And they never returned the bucket.

Bonus Fact: While Bologna may be short a bucket, the city is home to something else: the world’s oldest university in continuous operation. The University of Bologna was founded in 1088 and still holds classes today.

From the ArchivesThe Pig War: Kind of like the War of the Bucket, minus one bucket, plus one pig, and a lower death toll. And in the Americas.

RelatedThis is almost a Bologna bucket. Almost.