The breaking wheel was a torturous capital punishment device used in the Middle Ages and early modern times for public execution by cudgelling to death, especially in France and Germany.
In France the condemned were placed on a cart-wheel with their limbs stretched out along the spokes over two sturdy wooden beams. The wheel was made to slowly revolve. Through the openings between the spokes, the executioner hit the victim with an iron hammer that could easily break the victim’s bones. This process was repeated several times per limb. Once his bones were broken, he was left on the wheel to die. It could take hours, even days, before shock and dehydration caused death. The punishment was abolished in Germany as late as 1827.
Less severe offenders would be cudgelled ‘top down’, with the first blow to the neck, causing death; more heinous criminals were punished ‘bottom up’, starting with the legs, and sometimes being beaten for hours. The number and sequence of blows was specified in the court’s sentence. Corpses were left for carrion-eaters, and the criminals’ heads often placed on a spike.
The wheel used in France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Romania, Russia, Greece, Spain, Portugal, and other countries. It was typically a large wooden wagon wheel with radial spokes, but a wheel was not always used. The condemned was sometimes spread-eagled and broken on a St Andrew’s cross consisting of two wooden beams nailed in an “X” shape, after which the victim’s mangled body might be displayed on the wheel. The condemned’s shattered limbs were woven (‘braiden’) through the spokes of the wheel, which was then hoisted onto a tall pole so that birds could eat the sometimes still-living individual.
In the Holy Roman Empire, the wheel was punishment reserved primarily for men convicted of aggravated murder (murder committed during another crime, or against a family member) or for belonging to a Christian denomination other than the Catholic Church.