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Historical Context in The Pit and the Pendulum

Historical Unreliability in “The Pit and the Pendulum”: Although Poe wrote “The Pit and the Pendulum” in 1842, the story takes place during the height of the Spanish Inquisition, implemented during the 15th through the 17th century to destroy heresy in order to promote and maintain Catholic Orthodoxy throughout Spain and Spanish territories. Individuals who refused to convert were subject to brutal torture including “autos-da-fe,” a judgement ceremony where heretics were condemned to death and burned alive. Throughout the story, Poe melds fact and fiction by rooting the story in a real event and dramatizing it through fictional horror. For example, General Lasalle, who saves the narrator from impending death, served as a general under Napoleon during the Peninsula Wars, which occurred following the height of the Spanish Inquisition. In addition, the Latin epigraph at the beginning of the story was never erected on the gates of the Jacobin House, as the text seems to suggest. By disregarding historical reliability, Poe creates a horror-filled landscape meant to terrify readers.

Historical Context Examples in The Pit and the Pendulum:

The Pit and the Pendulum

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"General Lasalle..."   (The Pit and the Pendulum)

General Antoine Charles Louis Lasalle (1775–1809) served as a general under Napoleon during the Peninsula Wars, years following the height of the Spanish Inquisition. The inclusion of Lasalle into the narrative is not historically accurate, since Lasalle was not involved in the battle of Toledo.

"scimitar..."   (The Pit and the Pendulum)

The narrator compares the “sharp steel” of the pendulum edge to the curved, concave edge of the “scimitar,” a cavalry sword historically used by Arabs and Turks. Poe’s sword descriptions reference Toledo, Spain, which has been one of the major epicenters for steel weaponry and sword-making since about 500 BCE.

"the Inquisition..."   (The Pit and the Pendulum)

The Spanish Inquisition, which spanned from the 15th to the 17th centuries, was an institution established to forcibly convert and maintain Catholic Orthodoxy throughout Spain and its territories. Those who refused to convert to Catholicism were brutally tortured and killed. During the time of the Inquisition, 150,000 heretics were prosecuted and between 3,000 and 5,000 among them were killed.

"autos-da-fe..."   (The Pit and the Pendulum)

The term “autos-da-fe,” which stems from the Portuguese auto da fé or “act of faith,” refers to a heretic’s judgement ceremony during the Spanish Inquisition. The ceremony was followed immediately by an execution, usually a burning. The first autos-da-fe was held in Seville in 1481, when six people were burned alive. Due to the threat of terror by the tribunals, by 1492 the Inquisition had taken hold of much of the Kingdom of Castile, including the capital city of Toledo, where the narrator is located.

"Impia tortorum longos hic turba furores Sanguinis innocui, non satiata, aluit. Sospite nunc patria, fracto nunc funeris antro, Mors ubi dira fuit vita salusque patent...."   (The Pit and the Pendulum)

The Latin epigraph which opens Poe’s short story translates as:

Here the wicked mob, unappeased, long cherished a hatred of innocent blood. Now that the fatherland is saved, and the cave of death demolished, where grim death has been, life and health appear.

This Latin epigraph—a quoted introduction for pieces of literature—refers to members of the French Jacobin Club who led the “Reign of Terror” during the French Revolution. One of the most recognizable groups during the Revolution, the Jacobins came to power in the 1790s and led the “Reign of Terror” by sending their enemies to the guillotine. Following their defeat in 1794, their old meeting house became the Saint-Honoré market. Although Poe’s story concerns itself with the torture inflicted by judges of the Spanish Inquisition, the epigraph sets the mood for a story replete with danger and torture.

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