Edgar Allan Poe's classic tale of horror, "The Pit and the Pendulum" utilizes the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition to tell the tale of a young man who suffers in the prisons of Toledo. Although Poe certainly takes dramatic license with the time period and the Inquisition, his fictional tale puts a unique twist on the facts of history by writing the story as a firsthand experience. To determine if this tale is historically accurate, there are several historical elements that need to be examined.
McDougall Littell's The Language of Literature gives the following background information about the element of heresy. The Roman Catholic practice of holding inquisitions began in medieval times to combat heresy, the act of expressing or holding beliefs different from those of the church.
Often the accused were put on trial for inadequate evidence. It could be as simple as another prisoner handing over a name that would bring an individual over to the judges. Many were tortured into giving names of heretics. Poe aptly describes in the stories how it may have been for a person who was charged with heresy who was waiting for his sentence.
To illustrate this point, Poe begins his story with the prisoner standing before the judges. He describes the irony of the seven candles, "And then my vision fell upon seven tall candles upon the table. At first they wore the aspect of charity, and seemed white slender angels who would save me." This symbolizes the irony of being in the presence of holy figures who would ultimately decide his fate and order his demise. At first, the narrator thinks there is a chance of salvation, but then he understands that his fate is not to be saved. He states, "While the angel forms became meaningless specters, with heads of flame, and I saw that from them there would be no help." Through these connotations and the reference to holy or angelic figures turning to evil specters, Poe is establishing the contradictory place of the Catholic Church in the inquisitorial process, the image of holy figures turning to evil.
There are several references in the story to the auto-da-fe. McDougall-Littell's The Language of Literature explains the auto-da-fe as this, "Those found guilty of the worst crimes were sentences and often executed at an elaborate formal ceremony called the auto-da-fe."
In "The Pit and the Pendulum Poe" uses the auto-da-fe as a reference point for the narrator as he tries to determine what is exactly happening to him. "The condemned to death, I knew, perished at the auto-da-fe, and one of those has been held at the very night of my trial. Had I been remanded to my dungeon, to await the next sacrifice, which would not take place for many months? This I saw at once could not be. Victims had been in immediate demand."
So the question is whether or not the auto-da-fe was a sacrifice or not. According the Jewish Virtual Library, "Artistic representations of the auto-da-fe usually depicts torture and the burning at the stake. However, this type of activity never took place during an auto-da-fe, which was in essence a religious act. Torture was not administered after a trial concluded, and executions were always held after and separate from the auto-da-fe." Therefore, it appears that Poe took a little dramatic license and combined the religious penance ceremony with the act of public executions.
Torture was conducted by the Spanish Inquisition to extract information and names from the prisoners, not to inflict a form of punishment. Poe has the main character be a captive of the inquisitors, but there appears to be no contact from humans to try to extract meaning from the man's lips. Instead, the tortures and machinations of the cell are to cause a long-suffering death. The pit itself, had it swallowed up the narrator, would have been a long fall into an eventual body of water. The rats that surface from the well, crawl over his body as he is tied by the surcingle to the frame. The narrator wonders about what food the rats are accustomed to devouring, leaving the reader to imagine that it is human flesh. It is doubtful that this is an accurate portrayal of the punishments, as the torture was to extract meaning. The inquisitors only peek into the cell when they believe that the prisoner fell into the pit when it was only a small rock tossed in.
Other tortures that the prisoner endures while in the cell, is being tied to the frame by a single surcingle, the image of father time with a descending pendulum that would cut the prisoner in two, macabre images that appear on the walls that are heated metal that shift on two sides that would force the prisoner toward the pit as the walls flatten further and further.
According to Joseph Perez and Janet Lloyd in the book The Spanish Inquisition, prisoners who were repeat offenders would be taken in shackles down a dark hallway and given poor conditions with the belief that if the conditions improved, that the prisoner would be more likely to confess. Water was used as a device of torture, but not in the aspect of The Pit and the Pendulum. In the story, the inquisitors take the water away in combination with salty meat or briand. There is no reference to walls with ghastly figures that are heated and moved. The key words in the title of the story,the pit and pendulum, are not something that appears to be documented as part of this period in history books. These no doubt were part of the imagination of Edgar Allan Poe to create a more dramatic story.
At the end of the story, the walls withdraw back and the prisoner is ready to drop into the abyss. Just at this moment, the prisoner falls into the arms of General LaSalle and the French army. The likelihood of the prisoner actually falling into the General's arms is literary, not factual. It would be symbolic of the end of the Spanish Inquisition more than a historical fact. General LaSalle was a general in Napoleon's army, but not in Toledo. The French army did play a role in the ending of the Inquisition, but this type of event actually occurring was purely a work of fiction to create an interesting ending.
Edgar Allan Poe without a doubt was a masterful genius of creativity. The Pit and the Pendulum is an example of this creativity. Although there is a little basis of historical fact in this story, most of it was written with Poe's flair for the dramatic and the macabre. He indulged in fantasy and readers appreciate the unique piece of fiction that the story represents, but it does not represent accurate historic context.