I ordered arsenic for his Thursday night pea soup.
He ate it up as if it were a dainty, anticipating Friday's fast.

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My late brother Erik XIV...
Swedish King Johan III confesses, circa 1591

(e-SoupSong 30: October 1, 2002)

Ah, so nice to see you. Come in.
Here, take a glass of braendevin and make yourself at home.
The liturgy is going well, I think? Fine.
Now help me to my knees for just a bit.
There, good.
Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.
Fourteen years ago today, and still unshrived.
I'm getting old, you know; time to fix accounts.
This will only take a minute.

You know most of it.
King Erik, my late half brother--
Years ago he put the country on a downhill course:
Political folly, always looking west,
With Finland and the Baltics at high risk.
Treaties with treacherous Ivan.
Trolling for England's Virgin Queen--and others.
Fiscally irresponsible.
Marrying his whore.
Deepening spells of madness.
Murdering Sweden's brightest stars.
Seven years of savage war,
With Danish Fredrik winning in the end.
Duke Karl and I, we had no choice.
He had to be deposed. For him, a mercy.
A blessing for the country.
Twenty-three years of peace we've had since then.

What's that? Me, an instrument of God?
Thank you, Father. Heaven knows I've tried.
Peace, stability, Rome's blessing on our new Red Liturgy--
As King of Sweden, I humbly serve my people.

No, stay a little please. There's just one other thing.
That Erik. Fourteen years ago, he died this very night.
A bowl of poisoned soup, and he was dead.
Sometimes we're forced to sin for higher ends.
But--instrument of God or no--
It still weighs heavy on me.
Forgive it, Father. I yearn for absolution.

Why so pale? I thought you knew.
The circumstances? Well, no harm.
That broken man. I pitied him at first.
Those tragic eyes with all the light gone out.
For mercy's sake, I took him out of Stockholm:
First Abo, then Kastelholm, then Gripsholm--
You remember, where he'd kept me and my Katarina
Mewed up for four long years.
He started whining then, begging to be banished and set free.
I prayed for guidance. Remembering his early wicked days,
I saw that punishment was needed.
I took away his books and paper; put him in the tower.
In darkness, his madness raged and he would scribble
Piteous pleas in charcoal in the margins of his only consolation--
An astrological almanac that never did him any good.
The more he raved, the more I held the line.
He had a life of evil to atone.
At Vasteras, I sent away his children and his wife,
Giving him, I thought, more time to weigh his life and to repent.
Obdurate Lutheran! At last he went to Orbyhus where,
I heard, guards tortured him for sport. Enough.
He'd had his chance. Like a rabid pup,
He needed final disposition.
I ordered arsenic for his Thursday night pea soup.
He ate it up as if it were a dainty, anticipating Friday's fast.
He didn't suffer much.
Alas, sometimes we're forced to sin for higher ends.
Your absolution please.

No? How no? Are you mad?
An "instrument of God," you said.
You were there. You saw his madness.
He needed to die! No, don't interrupt.
It was for the Church. You know that!
I saw your look. You wanted it as much as me.
"Bring Sweden back to the One True Church," pleading!
"Bring back the penitents, the property, the big bronze bells."
I've done that. You owe me.

Thank you, Father.
Now help me up.
I'll show you to the door.

SWEDISH PEA SOUP, or Ärtsoppa (arsenic optional):

Traditional in Sweden since before the Vikings, ärtsoppa was made from fast-growing peas that accommodated the short growing season. Ärtsoppa was especially popular among the many poor who cooked all their food in their one and only pot, meat and vegetables together, over an open wood fire. When Sweden was converted to Catholicism, pea soup became the traditional meal for Thursday dinner--thick and hearty, especially "och flask" (with pork) to tide hardworking farmers over the fast on Fridays. Although Gustav Vasa, Erik XIV's father, converted Sweden to Lutheranism around 1530 (which stuck, in spite of Johan III's efforts), pea soup continued to be eaten as a standard for Thursday dinners even to today, traditionally with brown mustard and crisp or hardcrusted bread. Over time, other traditions grew up around it. When Sweden began importing arrack from Indonesia and Java in the 18th century, punsch, an arrack-based, sweet yellow liqueur, became the pea soup drink of choice. Then thin Swedish pancakes, topped with preserves or fresh berries. This ärtsoppa recipe serves 4-6 people.

  • 1 pound whole dried yellow peas (split peas are okay if you can't find whole peas)
  • 6 cups cold water
  • 2 onions, chopped fine
  • 1 whole onion, peeled and stuck with 2 whole cloves
  • 1/2 pound whole piece of lean salt pork
  • 1/4 teaspoon marjoram
  • 1/2 teaspoon thyme
  • salt (if needed)
Garnish: grainy brown mustard

1. Soak the peas in water at least 12 hours.
2. Drain the peas, put them in a big pot, cover with the water, chopped onions, and the onion with cloves. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a medium simmer, add the piece of salt pork, cover, and let simmer for about 90 minutes. If pea skins surface, skim them off.
3. Rub the marjoram and thyme between the palms of your hands into the pot, stir, and let simmer another 15 minutes. Season to taste, though the salt pork should have seasoned the broth enough.
4. Remove the meat, let cool, then cut into pieces. Remove the clove-stuck onion and discard.
5. When ready to serve, divide the pork among rimmed bowls, then ladle the soup over it. Pass a bowl of grainy brown mustard for your guests to spoon onto the rim of their soupbowls. They can choose to stir the mustard directly into the soup...or, with each bite, to dip the tip of their spoon into the mustard before filling the rest of it with soup.

Best regards...and Smaklig måltid (good appetite!),
Pat Solley

Resources: Ingvar Andersson's A History of Sweden; Inga Norberg Bredelius' Here is Sweden; Terence Heywood's Background to Sweden; Clara Laughlin's So You're Going to Scandinavia; Vilhelm Moberg's A History of the Swedish People, from Renaissance to Revolution; Michael Roberts' The Swedish Imperial Experience, 1560-1718; Irene Scobbie's Sweden; August Strindberg's The Vasa Trilogy (introductions by Walter Johnson); and an assortment of web sites for history and recipes.
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NEXT MONTH: St. Martin's Day: The reluctant bishop and svartsoppa