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“Mind you,” she said through her tears, “that man who came to us one time, when we dwelt at Skog? He that knew all the ancient lays? Mind you the lay of a dead man that was come back from the world of torment, and told his son the story of all that he had seen? There was heard a groaning from Hell’s deepest ground, the querns of untrue women grinding mould for their husbands’ meat. Bloody were the stones they dragged at — bloody hung the hearts from out their breasts


The above paragraph is a part of 'Kristin Lavransdatter' by Sigrid Undset. It's a conversation between husband and wife. The wife is saying about a saga or similar thing, repenting her past. The novel was written 1929, depicting 14 century Norway, which was translated from Norwegian to English in 1929 by Charles Archer in a rather old fashioned way.

My general understanding for the above is 'unfaithful wives will be punished in Hell', but I can't figure out in what manner they are punished. (In fact, I don't understand the exact meaning of those bold part of sentence I marked.)

Hoping somebody could help me.

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This quote uses several obsolete words, making it difficult to understand for someone with a 21st century vocabulary.

A "lay" is a ballad, a song that tells a story.

A "quern" is a primitive tool for grinding grain. Grinding grain uses "stones". Basically, you put the grain on one stone, put another stone on top, and then turn the top stone to grind up the grain.

An "untrue" person is someone who has cheated on their spouse.

"Mould" is just an old spelling of "mold".

"Meat" means food. Any food, not just the burnt dead body of an animal.

"Breast" simply means a person's chest -- not necessarily the part a woman uses to feed babies.

So the writer is saying that a man sang a song to them about someone who had visited the "world of torment" -- I assume that means Hell -- where he had seen women who had cheated on their husbands grinding mold to make food for their husbands. That is, instead of grinding wheat to make bread, they are grinding mold.

And frankly at that point I get confused too. Why were the stones bloody? Mold wouldn't make them bloody. Or maybe he doesn't mean that the mold made them bloody, that's just more of the weirdness that's happening. I'm not sure if "bloody hung the hearts from out their breasts" is meant literally, that their hearts are literally hanging out of their chests. Or if this simply is a metaphorical way to say that they are very sad.

In any case, the gist of the paragraph is that women who cheated on their husbands are being punished by being forced to grind mold instead of wheat to make bread, which results in something disgusting that they are ashamed of, as they are or should be ashamed of breaking their marriage vows.

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  • Correction: mould is the British spelling of mold. Aug 10 at 6:40
  • Anything that moves the heart to hang outside the chest is going to be bloody.
    – Joshua
    Nov 23 at 18:11
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A "quern" is a hand-mill, used to grin grain to make flour,and thus bread. Ir can also be use to grind other forms of food. So

the querns of untrue women grinding mould for their husbands’ meat.

is an image of preparing something unpaletable as food, a punishment for all involved, it would seem. (Recall that one older sense of z'meat" is just "food", as in " meat and drink"

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