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A breaking wheel is a medieval torture device that was generally used for executions, typically for those who committed especially heinous or noteworthy crimes. It appeared much like a large wagon wheel, onto which a person was strapped down prior to his or her execution. The executioner would then use a large cudgel or iron hammer and break the bones of the person who was sentenced to death. A breaking wheel was principally used for torture, since the death of the person upon the wheel was assured, though the time it took for the person to die could vary quite a bit.
Also called a Catherine Wheel, a breaking wheel is often depicted in images of medieval torture and execution, as well as depictions of St. Catherine of Alexandria, from whom it derives its alternate name. The wheel used was typically a large wagon wheel with a number of spokes running between the central hub and the outer frame of the wheel. A prisoner was tied onto the wheel, usually with his or her torso at the center of the wheel and his or her wrists and ankles tied outward along the spokes or frame.
The executioner would then use a heavy club, cudgel, or large iron hammer to beat the prisoner. If the purpose of the procedure was to inflict a great deal of pain, such as when used to execute someone convicted of parricide, then the executioner would beat only the prisoner’s arms and legs. This would break the prisoner’s bones, but not inflict sufficient injury to actually cause the death of the prisoner. The prisoner on the breaking wheel would then be left to die from dehydration, which could often take hours or even several days.
Use of the breaking wheel throughout much of Europe, from its origin in Greece to Germany, England, and France, led to a number of common sayings and lore about the wheel. The term “to break upon the wheel” was used to refer to the process of execution using a breaking wheel, and the French term coup de grâce or “blow of mercy” refers to the act of striking someone’s chest or head rather than only his or her limbs to expedite the prisoner’s death. St. Catherine of Alexandria was said to have been sentenced to death upon a breaking wheel, but legend states that when she touched the wheel it broke apart. A great deal of artistic imagery of St. Catherine depicts the breaking of the wheel or other wheel iconography.