The eruption of basaltic magmas dominates explosive volcanism on Earth and other planets within the Solar System. The mechanism through which continuous magma fragments into volcanic particles is central in governing eruption dynamics and the ensuing hazards.
However, the mechanism of fragmentation of basaltic magmas is still disputed, with both viscous and brittle mechanisms having been proposed. Here we carry out textural analysis of the products of ten eruptions from seven volcanoes by scanning electron microscopy. We find broken crystals surrounded by intact glass that testify to the brittle fragmentation of basaltic magmas during explosive activity worldwide. We then replicated the natural textures of broken crystals in laboratory experiments where variably crystallized basaltic melt was fragmented by rapid deformation. The experiments reveal that crystals are broken by the propagation of a network of fractures through magma, and that afterwards the fractures heal by viscous flow of the melt. Fracturing and healing affect gas mobility, stress distribution, and bubble and crystal size distributions in magma. Our results challenge the idea that the grain size distribution of basaltic eruption products reflects the density of fractures that initially fragmented the magma and ultimately indicate that brittle fracturing and viscous healing of magma may underlie basaltic explosive eruptions globally.