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The Terrain ofChaucer's Sittingbourne Glending Olson ClevelandState University Tday the town of Sittingbourne is not one of England's principal tourist attractions. Situated in an area devoted to man­ ufacturing paper and cement, it has, as one writer candidly puts it, "achieved large dimensions and a reputation for drabness from these same two industries."1 For hundreds of years, however, Sit­ tingbourne must have been much less drab and much more eco­ nomically dependent on tourism. It lay on the London Road and was one of the major stopping places for pilgrims and travelers between London and Canterbury. As late as the eighteenth century Edward Hasted could write of the town: "The principal support of it has always been, and still continues to be from the inns, and houses of reception in it for travellers, of which there are many." He noted that the citizens still boasted of having entertained Henry V at one of their inns when he returned to England from his victory at Agincourt.2 We remember Sittingbourne's historical role mainly because of a single reference to it in The Canterbury Tales, a citation that has become the focus of much scholarly attention. In the Ellesmere and certain other manuscripts, mention of Sittingbourne (forty miles from London) precedes the allusion to Rochester (thirty miles from London), thereby creating an apparent geographical inconsistency in the sequence of towns named in the course of the pilgrimage. This perceived inconsistency has played a large role in the debate about the order of the Tales between defenders of the Ellesmere 1 Roger Higham, Kent (London: Batsford, 1974), p. 38. 2 Edward Hasted, The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent, II (Canterbury, 1782), 615. 103 STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER sequence and supporters of the "Bradshaw shift." Both sides almost invariably assume that there is a difficulty with locations in the Ellesmere order; one minimizes it, and the other finds it insur­ mountable. In this investigation I intend, in part, to question that assumption, but my principal purpose is simply to look closely at the reference to Sittingbourne, to give it fuller literary attention than it has had before. In doing so, I will reintroduce and reargue­ with some differences-an interpretation briefly put forth thirty years ago by Stanley B. Greenfield that has not gained the accep­ tance it should have, and I will raise the possibility that the allusion may have topical significance. Still, I do not wish so much to offer a single new reading as to suggest that more than one reading is possible; I want to expand the perspective from which we view the reference, to liberate thinking about it from its present geographical straitjacket. Although the passage that mentions Sittingbourne is not of great literary importance in itself, what we make of it is intimately connected with our understanding of such larger matters as the order of The Canterbury Tales and the nature of Chaucer's realism in the framing story. I Let us look first at the reference to Sittingbourne in its context. In The Wife ofBath's Prologue the Wife has been speaking for some time on the subject of marriage and her husbands, and the Friar laughingly intrudes with a jibe about her "long preamble of a tale" (D 831).3 The Summoner then butts in with an attack on friars' habits of butting in. The Host quiets them down; the Wife tells her tale, following which the Friar and the Summoner renew their quarrel, each offering a story that condemns the other. Clearly the most obvious function of lines 829-56 is to unify fragment D dramatically by preparing us for the antagonistic stories to follow, and some recent criticism has found a corresponding structural and 3 All Chaucer quotations are from F. N. Robinson, ed., The WorksofGeoffrey Chaucer, 2d ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957). 104 CHAUCER'S SITTINGBOURNE thematic unity within this group of tales.4 A close look at the exchange reveals that the allusion to Sittingbourne ought prin­ cipally to be understood in the context of the verbal battle between the Friar and the Summoner. The Friar interrupts the Wife. The Summoner attacks...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1949-0755
Print ISSN
0190-2407
Pages
pp. 103-119
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-03
Open Access
No
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