Hello, I am trying something a little new this time. I usually like to tackle big topics with a lot of writing, but that doesn’t fit my schedule well. I will likely finish those later, but in the meantime, I’m going to try and write some shorter funnier episodes from world history because they are a more feasible use of my time.
If you play Crusader Kings II or Europa Universalis III or any other similar game, you’ve probably heard the Latin phrase casus belli before. Translated, this phrase is something like “case for war” and it refers to the situation or event that a state or leader uses to justify a military action. For example, the casus belli for Britain and France to declare war against Nazi Germany was that Hitler was being a jerk and a threat by eating up all of Europe. Another example of a casus belli would be Pope Urban II’s basis for calling the First Crusade, that Islamic forces controlled the Holy Land and also posed a threat to the Christian Byzantine Empire. A casus belli does not have to be universally recognized as valid (obviously in the Crusades the Muslims saw Jerusalem as one of their holy cities too), but it’s incredibly rare for a war to be declared with absolutely no reason whatsoever.
So this is the story of my favorite casus belli in the history of the world: when two small Italian states fought an epic battle over a wooden bucket.
For most of the Middle Ages, Italy was divided up into various small states constantly vying for power on the small peninsula. Some, like Venice, became powerful forces in the Mediterranean arena, but for the most part, the smaller cities chose to align with larger powers for protection. In the 1300s, the Holy Roman Empire and the Papal States both struggled to hold sway over the small polities of northern Italy. Two major factions formed with the very fun-to-say names of Guelphs and Ghibellines. Now, the Guelphs were devout Catholics who thought it would be great to stay loyal to His Holiness the Pope in Rome. Then there were the Ghibellines, who saw their lands as being under rightful protection of the Holy Roman Emperor.
In 1325, tensions were running high between the Guelph city-state of Bologna and the Ghibelline city-state of Modena. Within the last few decades, Bologna had pushed on the Modenese border and gobbled up some small towns, with the pope then confirming Bolognese dominion over those areas. Border clashes had become frequent and the cities looked for every opportunity for annoy each other. And then, one day, a small group of Modenese soldiers went too far.
Sneaking into the center of Bologna, the Modenese managed to get to the well that many of the Bolognese got their water from. There, they found an oaken bucket used to draw water and they ran off with it. They then stuffed it full of loot and ran off to Modena where they put it up on display as if to say, “Ha, Bologna, we’ve got your bucket!”
And that’s where the greatest casus belli in the history of the world comes in. Under the blessing of Pope John XXII, Bologna mustered an army of 32,000 men to march against Modena and punish them for stealing their bucket! Best reason ever.
Modena wasn’t quite as powerful, with an army of only 7,000, but they took the initiative and marched out to meet the enemy in Bolognese territory at Zappolino. Long story short, the Modenese managed to rout the Bolognese and drive them from the battlefield. They then grabbed another bucket from a smaller well outside the city gate of Bologna and ran off with that too, because why not. In total, about 2,000 people died in the short fray that went down in history as the War of the Bucket.
And if you’re wondering about the original bucket that started it all, Bologna never got it back. The Torre della Ghirlandina bell tower on a cathedral in Modena keeps an ancient bucket to this day that is believed to have been that which was taken from Bologna.
The Bolognese bucket was kept in this cathedral and is still there today.