Ever wondered how criminals and anti-social elements were punished in the medieval period? At that time, mercy was not an option if someone landed on the wrong side of the law. The authorities devised some excruciatingly painful instruments to torture the criminals. Some of them were so unbearable that hearing or reading about them will send a shiver down your spine even today. One such device used for torturing and public execution across Europe is the Breaking Wheel. It was predominantly used from antiquity through the Middle Ages into the early modern period to torture and execute murders, rapists, traitors, robbers, and other severe criminals by breaking their bones or bludgeoning them to death. Read more about this horrific torture device in the article to know how crime and criminals were taught a fitting lesson through this severe pain-inducing device.
What is the Breaking Wheel?
The Breaking Wheel is also called the Execution Wheel or the Wheel of Catherine. It was typically a large wooden wheel with iron spokes on all sides. It would look similar to the wheel of carts and carriages but modified with an attached rectangular iron thrust and a blade-like protrusion on the rim. It also consisted of several teeth or cogs that worked as injury-inflicting additions during the punishment. The Breaking Wheel was considered one of the cruellest and most painful ways of torture and punishment in the medieval period.
History of the Catherine Wheel
One of the earliest mentions of a Breaking Wheel is in Gregory of Tours’ writings, indicating that it would have been invented and practised during his time – mainly between 538 and 594 AD. In his writings, the Breaking Wheel has been described as more like the wagon punishment, where criminals were driven over by a huge wagon, crushing them to death. In other accounts by authors like Geoffrey Abbott, the Breaking Wheel came into existence during the cruel Roman emperor Commodus. Here, the criminals were secured to a bench and rolled over by a giant wheel with iron spikes. Sometimes, the wheel was also pounded on the victim’s body, resulting in excruciating pain and agony.
In France, the condemned was positioned on the cartwheel with the limbs spread across the spokes. The executioner would then use a heavy hammer to deliver blows on the limbs, breaking bones and causing grievous injuries. Sometimes, the condemned was hit on the chest and abdomen, making them cry. If the punished lived through this torture, they were left to die for some time as birds, and other scavengers feasted on the injured bodies.
The Romans used the Breaking Wheel more meticulously, making them crueller in this torture technique. The offenders of less serious crimes were attacked from the head down, delivering heavy blows to the head, killing them almost instantly. The more heinous the crime, the more intense the torture. Those proven guilty of murders and other crimes seen as severe by the kingdom were attacked from the bottom up. The legs were attacked first with several blows (the court often decided the number). The blows moved upwards as the intensity increased. This would go on for days, and the beaten bodies were left in the open to die of starvation, pain and scavenging.
Apart from this, the Breaking Wheel torture was also part of several other kingdoms and countries. Historical accounts of this form of torture have also been found in places like Scotland, the Indian subcontinent, Colonial United States, Russia, and Sweden.
How does the Breaking Wheel work?
The functioning of the Breaking Wheel was often divided into different acts. The first act was about inflicting severe injuries on the limbs by delivering powerful hammer blows. To intensify the punishment, sharp spokes were placed below the joints before hitting those areas with the hammer. Sometimes, the executioner was asked to kill the punished in the first act by aiming at the neck or heart.
In the second act, the body would be braided into or tied to another cartwheel, after which the wheel was erected on a pole or a mast. Then the executioner could decapitate the body as per the instructions, or a fire was lit at the bottom of the wheel, slowly engulfing the entire structure. In some instances, the wheel and the accused were thrown into the fire.
The body was then left to decay and scavenged. This was also seen as a sacral, a hindrance from death to resurrection. If the person managed to survive after all this, it was seen as the gods’ wish and the convict was left alone.
The Catherine Legend
Certain medieval records state that St. Catherine of Alexandria was punished for going through torture on the breaking wheel as she refused to renounce her belief in Christianity. The legend is that the wheel broke as soon as she touched it, and she was beheaded instead to complete her verdict. After this legend, the breaking wheel was re-christened as the Catherine Wheel. In most popular depictions, Catherine is shown holding a small broken wheel.
Interesting facts about Breaking Wheel
- The Breaking Wheel was so widely used across different cultures and countries that several expressions have developed using this phrase. In Dutch, it is used as “to grow up for the gallows and wheel,” a Chilean expression says “to die on the wheel,” while a German expression is to express extreme fatigue by saying “to feel wheeled.”
- An excavation project in Milan in 2019 discovered the remains of a man broken on the wheel. The body is believed to be of a 17-year-old from 1290 AD.
- The Breaking Wheel is a chilling example of how unlawful activities were punished in the medieval era. We are living in a much more civilized world.