Maze Green Road

Immediately next to the college main entrance is Maze Green Road; narrow, winding and lined with tall fir trees at its start. It leads to further college buildings that include the college dining hall, boarding houses and preparatory school but the first building you arrive at is No1 Maze Green Road, part of the original school building erected in 1868. The setting here is idyllic, academia blending effortlessly with suburbia – even the Headmaster’s office and that of the Bursar are accommodated in a private house (No 10).

According to the notes of former town historian J.L. Glasscock (HALS*), reference to this road first appeared in 1396 when it was called Mesegrene. It has also been referred to as Moresgreen Lane (1645); Musgreen (1649); and Munshall or Musgrene Lane (1671). In 1596 it was also called Wayte Lane because it led from the ancient Waytes Cross to Mase Green [sic].

For a long period of time, however, it was more commonly known as Pest House Lane, the name possibly originating from the 16th century when plague – also known as pestis – struck Bishop’s Stortford. The town was visited by the plague on three occasions in all, the first being the bubonic plague in 1349 of which time there are few records. But at the time of its second visit, between June 1582 and March 1583, it is known to have claimed 60 lives in the area. Those who were ill of plague were segregated and interred a suitable distance away from the town in a building at the top of this road called the Pest House. It is for this reason that we assume Pest House Lane was so named.

There are, however, other suggestions for it being named Pest House Lane, but more particularly Maze Green Road, each of which is equally plausible. In medieval England every town had its Pest – or Lazer – or Leper House situated just outside its boundaries. The name for a Leper was ‘mezel’ (pronounced mazel), and a Leper House would have been called a Lazer House, or Mezel House. By this token, the green at the top of the road may well have been the site of a Leper House and called ‘Mezel (or Mazel) Green’.

Another suggestion is that Maze Green Road was named as a direct result of the plague’s first visit to the town in the 14th century – the medieval word ‘maze’ or ‘mazed’ said to be interpreted as a ‘muddled mind’, which was just one of the effects the disease had on people. It’s feasible, therefore, that the green at the top of this road was used as a place of internment for plague victims and named ‘Maze’ Green for that reason. In fact, both suggestions would tie in with the earliest reference to the road (1396): Mesegrene, as in mezel (pronounced mazel), referring to a Leper House; or Mesegrene, as in Maze Green, referring to the ‘mazed’ effect the 1349 plague had on its victims.

If this is true, then it would seem the name Pest House Lane originated at the time of the plague’s final and most devastating visit to the town. In the wake of the Great Plague that struck London in 1665, it reached Stortford in July 1666 and raged for a full five months. The church register records 231 related deaths in 1666/67 – at that time one sixth of Bishop’s Stortford’s population – but the total may have been much higher because not all victims were buried in St Michael’s churchyard. Church records also show that during the outbreak, one William Barnard was paid 6d. (2 1/2p) ‘for making of “O Lord have mercy upon us” on doors’.

Despite the Pest House being pulled down in 1834 as a result of the Poor Law Ammendment Act (See Guide 10 – Workhouse), the name Pest House Lane was retained until the late 1800s when its original title was then reinstated – fortunately before the College became fully established. Locally, though, it was still referred to as ‘The Lane’ until the late 1920s. Where the actual Pest House stood later became the site of the town’s water works but in the early 1990s was redeveloped for private housing.

*(HALS) Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies

The Plague

The Plague

In 1347 news reached England of a terrible disease that was sweeping the Continent. Named the pestilence, it had seemingly begun on the island of Sicily, devastating the population, then crossed to mainland Italy where it rapidly spread throughout the country causing countless deaths particularly in Florence and Venice. It also crossed the Mediterranean to Marseille, where it established a base, and from there spread throughout northern Europe.

In the summer of 1348 the pestilence arrived in England aboard a merchant ship from Gascony. After docking at Weymouth in Dorset, one crew member, totally unaware he had been infected with the disease before setting sail, soon began to mix with the locals. All he came into contact with were immediately infected and within days the disease was carried out of Dorset by merchants and travellers. Within weeks the whole of England, Scotland and Ireland were being ravaged.

The reason the sailor was unaware he had been infected with the disease was due its long incubation period, which was in excess of thirty days. When the symptons did appear though, death was inevitable and victims faced five days of absolute agony.

The contemporary Franciscan Friar Michael of Piazza described the symptons thus: ‘The ‘burn blisters’ appeared, and boils developed in different parts of the body: on the sexual organs, in others on the thighs, or on the arms, and in others on the neck. The patient was seized by violent shivering fits, which soon rendered him so weak that he could no longer stand upright, but was forced to lie on his bed, consumed by a violent fever. The blood rose from the affected lungs to the throat, producing a putrefying and ultimately decomposing effect on the whole body’. We now know that in the victims’ final days, internal bleeding began to liquify the body’s internal organs and death was the only happy release.

The plague reached London in the autumn of 1348 and within weeks decimated its population. How many Londoners died is impossible to calculate because no accurate medieval records exist, but modern historians believe it was anywhere between 17,000 and 50,000. Some think half of the city’s population was killed, equalling 500,000 people. In Europe the death toll has been estimated at 25 million people, and worldwide a third of the population are thought to have perished. The plague persisted mainly in France for a further 300 years and England’s population suffered regularly, mainly due to crews of merchant ships regularly bringing the disease to London and south coast ports.

The Black Death and bubonic plague were always believed to be one and the same thing, mainly because the diagnostic feature of this disease is swelling of the lymph glands – called buboes – and the same sympton had been found in some victims of the Black Death. It was also firmly believed that the disease was spread directly from one person to another. This was disproved in the wake of the most recent pandemic that began in China in 1894 and which, before it subsided around 1910, had circled the globe and killed an estimated 12 million people, mostly in India. Scientists concluded that bubonic plague was caused by a bacterial disease (yersinia pestis) of rodents, spread by their fleas.

This does not mean that rats were the primary carriers of the disease as tradition suggests, but that it was more likely to have been wild rodents such as gerbils, voles and squirrels that were resistent to the virus. A rat died after it had been infected by fleas, perhaps after contact with a wild rodent, and only then did the fleas jump to nearby people looking for a source of food.

Of the three types of disease, bubonic plague is the most common. The bacteria (bacilli) enters into the body’s lymphatic system by flea bites, causing large inflamed swelling in the lymph glands depending on where the flea bite occured. Historically, 60% of those infected in this way died.

The second is septicaemic plague, the bacilli entering the bloodstream directly through fleabites, lesions on the skin, or by contact between fleas excrement and scratches. It is almost invariably fatal.

The third type is pneumonic plague, the most deadly of all and usually always fatal. This can be passed directly from person to person by water droplet infection, generally transmitted when someone coughs, or on clothing. When the bacilli reach the lungs, severe pneumonia occurs.

It is possible that human fleas also transmitted the disease between people but disease of pandemic proportion, like the one that wiped out millions in Britain and Europe during the Middle Ages and thousands in Hong Kong in 1894, is still dependent on wild rodents and their fleas.

However, more recent research by scholars *Susan Scott and Christopher Duncan, has caused them to challenge this belief. The real diagnostic feature of the Black Death, they say, was the haemorrhagic red spots that appeared on the chest of victims, which were due to bleeding from damaged blood vessels under the skin. This they believe was caused by a virus spread by droplet infection as opposed to flea-borne dissemination of bubonic plague. A person didn’t need to be touched by a sufferer; just standing within 12 feet of them would prove fatal.

The conclusion they draw is that the plague was probably related to a viral filovirus, the infectious agent of Ebola which, today, is the disease that most closely resembles the Black Death. The hypothesis offered is that it was a viral disease of mammals in Africa that escaped thousands of years ago to infect man in Ethiopia. From there it may have moved along the Nile and established a base in the eastern Mediterranean, making many fatal strikes at early civilizations before moving to Mesopatamia in 1340.

Their reason given for the disappearance of plagues in Britain and Europe in the late 17th century, is because those most affected by it i.e. populations of towns and cities, eventually developed a genetic resistence to the virus. Although experts say that Scott and Duncan’s filovirus thesis cannot be dismissed, it is not universally accepted.

Where the Black Death came from is also much debated but most historians seem to agree the disease originated in the Gobi Desert, Mongolia. Neighbouring China suffered terribly from the 1328 outbreak, the population there reduced from 125 million to 90 million within a few years. From China the disease travelled on the caravan trade routes across Asia, then on to the known world via merchant shipping. In 1340 the disease moved into Mesopatamia and the Black Sea creating epidemics in the Crimea, then moved swiftly to Constantinople, Alexandria, Cairo and the port of Messina in Sicily. This was the stepping stone to Europe.

Tradition has it that the term ‘Black Death’ was derived from the blackened and putrefying flesh of plague victims, but in fact the ‘buboes’ caused by septicaemic plague show up as purple and black blotches. It is thought more likely the term was a mistranslation of the Latin expression for the plague: pestis atra or atra mors. ‘Atra’ is translated as ‘dreadful’ or ‘terrible’ but can also mean ‘black’. The term only came into common usage in the 18th century when it was used to differentiate between the plague of 1348–50 and the Great Plague of London in 1665.

It is widely believed that reference to the Great Plague is made in the nursery rhyme ‘Ring-a-ring o’ roses’: the ‘roses’ referring to the red spots that appear over the buboes, and ‘A-tishoo! A-tishoo! We all fall down!’ describing the violent coughing of victims and the swift death that follows pneumonic plague.

Although plague gradually disappeared in Britain and Europe in the late 17th century, it is still endemic in parts of Asia and, more surprisingly, in the western states of America where it is spread by rodents, prairie dogs and even infected house pets. The last urban plague epidemic there occured in Los Angeles in 1924–25, but in rural areas 10–15 people are still infected each year. Globally, the World Health Organisation reports 1,000–3,000 cases of plague every year.
More Information

Return of the Black Death by Susan Scott and Christopher Duncan (Wiley, 2004)