Friday, 19 February 2021

Macamathehou in Lincolnshire and the evidence for people named Muhammad in medieval England

The aim of the following draft is to offer some thoughts on a local name from thirteenth-century Lincolnshire, Macamathehou, that involves a version of the Arabic name Muhammad (Middle English Makomet/Macamethe, Old French Mahomet). Whilst it has been plausibly seen as an instance of a variant of the name of Muhammed being used to mean 'heathen', 'pagan idol' or similar (based on the false but common medieval Christian belief that the prophet Muhammad was worshipped as a god), here in reference to a barrow that was considered to be a pre-Christian site, it is worth noting that there are a small number of people with names and surnames derived from Arabic Muḥammad apparently living in twelfth- to fourteenth-century England.

Figure 1: the location of Macamathehou between Spridlington and Faldingworth parishes in Lincolnshire; click the image or here for a larger version (image: C. R. Green/OpenStreetMap and its contributors). 

The existence of the intriguing local name Macamathehou in the parish of Spridlington, Lincolnshire, was first noted in 2001 by Kenneth Cameron, John Field and John Insley in Place-Names of Lincolnshire VI (PNL), with both attestations of the name dating from the thirteenth century (the reign of King Henry III, 1216–72).(1) They identify the two elements of the name as being Old Norse haugr, 'mound, barrow', and Middle English Makomet/Macamethe, which derives from the name of the prophet Muhammad (Medieval Latin Machometus/Mahumetus, Anglo-Norman Mahumet/Mahomet/Machomete, Old French Mahomet < Arabic Muḥammad, probably via an Arabic regional form Maḥammad).(2) Needless to say, this solution is most intriguing and has, moreover, found favour with other place-name specialist, including the Vocabulary of English Place-Names (VEPN) and Richard Coates.(3)

As to the import of this name, the easiest conclusion—and the one endorsed by PNL, VEPN and Coates—is that the first element, Macamethe/Maumate etc, is not functioning simply as a normal Middle English rendering of the name Muhammad/Mahomet, but rather as a word indicative of heathen or pagan idolatry, based on the false but common medieval Christian belief that the prophet Muhammad was worshipped as a god. So, PNL describes the name as meaning 'the heathen mound', with the first element being 'a corrupt ME [Middle English] form of the name of the prophet Mohammed, for which v. MED [Middle English Dictionary], s.v. Makomete, also used to denote a pagan god or an idol'.(4) This is taken up by Richard Coates, who says that it has been suggested, 'with great plausibility', that Macamathehou in Spridlington parish 'is a Middle English name meaning "Mahomet mound", i.e. "heathen mound"', and points to 'the repeated compound of OE hæðen + byrgels "heathen burial"' as a potential comparison.(5) Likewise, the VEPN's draft section on M includes the following discussion:

makomet ME, 'idol, pagan god', an application of the name of the Arab prophet Mohammed (commonly though mistakenly believed by medieval Christians to have been worshipped as a god)... It occurs early in Macamathehou (f.n.) 1216–72 L:6·211 (haugr), presumably to be interpreted as 'heathen mound'.(6)

On the whole, this interpretation is probably the safest option. There are certainly a handful of references to 'heathen' barrows in Old English charter bounds, for example of leofwynne mearce to þam hæþenan beorge, 'from Leofwine's boundary to the heathen barrow', in the charter S956 relating to Drayton, Hampshire, and dated AD 1019, although none are recorded from Lincolnshire.(7) It has also been suggested that the Lincolnshire names Bloater Hill (North Willingham) and Blod Hou (Barrow-on-Humber) derive from Old Norse blóthaugr, 'a sacrificial mound', whilst other names involving haugr certainly refer to supernatural/demonic creatures—for example, Gasthehowe/Gastehowe, Ashby Puerorum (Lincolnshire), recorded in the thirteenth century and deriving from Middle English gast/Old English gāst, 'ghost, dead-spirit', or names like Scratters (Scrathou, in Hayton, East Riding of Yorkshire) and Scrathowes (Scrathou, in Osmotherley, North Riding of Yorkshire), which derive from Old Norse skratti, 'devil, wizard' + haugr.(8) Furthermore, the Old English compound hæðen + byrgels, 'heathen burial', does indeed recur frequently in Late Saxon charter bounds, with these names often said to be identifiable with barrows in the landscape.(9)

On the other hand, there are some possible issues with this explanation, and other interpretations are possible of Spridlington's Macamathehou. First, the comparison with the many instances of the OE compound hæðen + byrgels, ‘heathen burial’, is perhaps not as convincing as it might seem. Not only is a link between this term and barrows only demonstrable in a handful of instances, but Andrew Reynolds has also suggested that the sense of the term was primarily not ‘pagan’, but rather ‘unconsecrated’, and that it denoted burials of executed offenders and other social outcasts, which renders the proposed value of these names as support for interpreting Macamathehou  as meaning ‘heathen mound’ open to significant debate.(10) Second, if the above is correct, then this would be the only known instance of a derivative of the Arabic name Muhammad being used in a place-name to indicate a 'heathen mound' or similar, which is potentially concerning—the other elements noted above all recur in multiple names. Third, the element identified by PNL and VEPN as being present in Macamethehou is Middle English Makomet(e). The Middle English Dictionary (MED) on Makomet(e)/Macamethe etc, however, makes it clear that the primary use of this word in Middle English is as a form of the name Muhammad, not as a word referring to an 'idol'/'pagan god', with the vast majority of quotations provided by the MED referring either the prophet Muhammad or people named Muhammad; the only exceptions are a single quotation from Layamon's Brut (c. 1200, mahimet, lacking the -c-), and three from two later texts.(11) The form of the name Muhammad that was primarily—although not exclusively—used in the sense 'pagan deity, idol', is rather Maumet/Maumate, mentioned above, deriving from Anglo-Norman Maumet, a reduced form of Mauhoumet, Old French Mahomet/Mahommet.(12)

In this light, it is worth considering whether it is possible that the name Macamathehou could somehow be named from a person named Makomet/Muhammad or similar living in medieval England. Certainly, it should be noted that multiple local names relating to mounds/barrows do seem to be named after people who owned estates or land in the area. For example, Andrew Reynolds draws attention to the bounds of a mid-tenth-century charter for Swallowcliffe, Wiltshire (S468), that records the burial site of a seventh‐century woman whose grave had been cut into an existing mound as Posses hlaew, noting that 'Poss is a male name, and thus the mound is apparently not named after its Anglo‐Saxon occupant', implying that it was instead named after a later estate owner.(13) As Irene Bower long ago pointed out, such a situation can be credibly paralleled in Lincolnshire, with a number of Lincolnshire names involving haugr seeming to contain the same personal-name as is found in the same or a neighbouring parish-name—so, Scalehau (Skalli + haugr) was located near to Scawby (Skalli + ), with Kenneth Cameron commenting that the two were 'no doubt named from the same man'; Leggeshou (Leggr + haugr) was located on the boundary of Legsby parish (Leggr + ); Katehou/Catehowe (Kati + haugr) was located in South Cadeby (Kati + ); and a Grimaldeshawe (Grimaldi + haugr) was recorded in the neighbouring parish to Grimoldby (Grimaldi + ), perhaps on the boundary between the two.(14)

Figure 2: Section from the Pipe Roll Society publication of The Great Roll of the Pipe for the Seventh Year of the Reign of King Henry the Second, A.D. 1160–1161 (London: Wyman & Sons, 1885), p. 10, dealing with Mahumet of Wiltshire (image: Internet Archive).

As to the likelihood of someone named Muhammad or one of its Anglo-Norman/Middle English variants (Mahumet, Makomet and similar) actually living in medieval England, this is perhaps less far-fetched than might be assumed. Katharine Keats-Rohan and John Moore have directed attention to the Wiltshire entries of five consecutive Pipe Rolls of Henry II (1160/61–1164/65) that refer to a man named Mahumet, whose name-form Moore considers very difficult to explain as anything other than a rendering of Muhammad and which is accepted as such by the OED and MED. This Mahumet is recorded in the Pipe Rolls only because he was fined for his part in an unlicensed duel with a John de Merleberge, probably in or near Marlborough Castle, and it seems he was not an especially wealthy man, as he was pardoned the last mark of his fine due to his poverty.(15) Furthermore, Mahumet of Wiltshire was not the only man with this name for whom we have evidence from medieval England. For example, a Theobald filius Mahumet (or filius Mahomet) is recorded from early thirteenth-century Hampshire in the Pipe Rolls of Henry III for 1222–24; another man named Mahomet is recorded in 1327, when Edward III issued him and six others a pardon at Newton-on-Ouse, Yorkshire, for 'offenses in Ireland'; and a Mahummet Saraceno occurs in the Close Rolls of Henry III for 1254. Furthermore, a number of people surnamed Mahumet and similar are recorded in documents of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, for example a Humphrey Mahumet in a charter of Southwick Priory, Hampshire, a Herbert Maumet who was sergeant of Portsmouth in the mid-thirteenth century, and a Radulphus Maumet who is recorded in the reign of King John.(16) Moore also notes the presence of someone bearing another 'apparent Arab name' in twelfth-century Hampshire, a certain Paucamatus, a name that he considers to probably reflect Bakmat, who is recorded in Winchester from 1159/60 until 1183/4 and who is associated with a man named Stephanus Sarracenus, one or both of whom may be of some relevance here.(17)

Looking more generally at the question of the presence of people who were Muslims or of potential Muslim ancestry in medieval England, and so who might bear names like Mahumet/Makomet and similar, Richard of Devizes in his description of London from c. 1192 certainly implies that there were 'Moors' in that city then, when he writes that:

You will arrive in London... do not mingle with the throngs in the eating-houses; avoid dice and gambling, the theatre and the tavern. You will encounter more braggarts than in the whole of France. The number of parasites is infinite. Actors, jesters, smooth-skinned lads, Moors, flatterers... All this sort of people fill all the houses.(18)

We do need to be careful here, however. The word translated ‘Moors’ here is actually garamantes, which may indicate an origin for this section in a classical or literary source, rather than reality, especially as influence from Horace’s Satires has been identified in the subsequent sections of Richard’s description of London.(19) More certainly relevant may be recent archaeological excavations at the medieval cemetery of St John’s Hospital, Lichfield, which revealed the burials of between two and five people of African ancestry, some of apparently high status, and at Ipswich, where nine people out of a total of a total of 150 excavated from a cemetery there appear to be of 'sub-Saharan' African descent, spread across thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, with the earliest having oxygen isotope results consistent with an early life spent in North Africa/Tunisia.(20) Likewise, recent work on burials in a mid-fourteenth-century cemetery at East Smithfield, London, indicated that 29% of a sample of 41 people buried there were of ‘non-White European ancestry’.(21

In the above light, it may also be worth noting that both Henry II and his son Richard I seem to have had 'Saracen mercenaries' in their employ, the latter having as many as 120 such mercenaries and apparently including at least some of them in the garrison of Domfront, Normandy.(22) Similarly, it is intriguing to note that knowledge of the location of medieval Lincoln on either side of the River Witham and the existence of the Foss Dyke as a waterway between that city and the River Trent seems to have reached the great Muslim scholar Muhammad al-Idrisi, who included these facts in his geographical encyclopaedia Nuzhat al-mushtaq fi ikhtiraq al-afaq, written for Roger II of Sicily and completed in 1154—indeed, it has been suggested that al-Idrisi probably travelled to England himself during the first half of the twelfth century, which is a point of some significance.(23)

Figure 3: Al-Idrisi's mid-twelfth-century Arabic map of Britain, from a late sixteenth-century copy in the Bodleian Library, Oxford; the map is split across three different drawings which have been combined together here so that the whole island can be seen (Bodleian Library MS. Pococke 375 folios 281b-282a, 308b, 310b-311a)—click the image or here for a larger view. Lincolnshire is on the left hand side, as the map is orientated with north at the bottom; the river flowing nearly horizontally from the left to right is the Witham, with Boston near the sea and Lincoln upstream, where the river flows through the town, just as it did in the medieval period when it divided the old Lower City from its medieval southern suburbs (image: Bodleian Library)

Finally, attention might also be directed to the evidence for at least some 'Saracens' having been unwillingly brought into England in the medieval period, although this is perhaps less directly relevant to the current enquiry. So, the Flores Historiarum under the year 1271 makes reference to Thomas de Clare having returned to England from the Holy Land with 'four Saracen prisoners',(24) and the Calendar of Patent Rolls for 1259 includes a mandate for the arrest of a runaway 'Ethiopian... sometime a Saracen' who had apparently escaped his master:

Mandate to all persons to arrest an Ethiopian of the name of Bartholomew, sometime a Saracen, slave (servus) of Roger de Lyntin, whom the said Roger brought with him to England; the said Ethiopian having run away from his said lord, who has sent an esquire of his to look for him: and they are to deliver him to the said esquire to the use of the said Roger.(25)

In sum, whilst we can point to no specific man named Mahumet/Makomet/Macamathe/Maumet (< Muhammad) present in twelfth-/thirteenth-century Lincolnshire after whom Macamathehou in Spridlington might be named, it seems clear that it is not entirely impossible that someone bearing such a personal name or something similar could lie behind this mound-/barrow-name, rather than it simply being a folkloric name intended to convey the meaning 'heathen barrow' or similar. Although such a usage of the name Muhammad might parallel names such as Scrathou and Gastehowe and be reflected in the usage of the medieval form Maumet and similar to mean 'pagan deity' or 'idol' in Middle English, there is significantly less evidence for the form Makomet being used in this way. Furthermore, not only are there no other instances of Makomet or Maumet being used in local names to indicate a perceived 'heathen' or 'pagan' character for landscape features such as mounds and barrows, but there is evidence for at least some people named variants of Muhammad living in medieval England between the twelfth and the fourteenth centuries. Additionally, there is also a small amount of textual evidence for Muslims and people of potential Muslim origins being present in England and Normandy in this era, some being clearly captured or enslaved, but others potentially living in cities such as London, Ipswich and Lichfield, and some even perhaps being relatively high-status or in the employ of the king. Such people were probably not present in England in great numbers, but the evidence we have for this is not insignificant, and it may at least give us further pause for thought when considering just what the meaning of Macamathehou might be. 


1.     K. Cameron, J. Field & J. Insley, The Place-Names of Lincolnshire: Part Six, The Wapentakes of Manley and Aslacoe, Survey of English Place-Names LXXVII (Nottingham: English Place-Name Society, 2001), p. 211; the name appears as both Macamathehou, which they treat as primary, and Mornmatehou.
2.     Cameron, Field and Insley, Place-Names of Lincolnshire VI, p. 211; Oxford English Dictionary, 'Mahomet, n.', OED Online, third edition, Oxford University Press, September 2020,, accessed 10 November 2020; 'Makomet(e), n.', in S. M. Kuhn & Reidy (eds), Middle English Dictionary: Part M.1 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1975), p. 83. On haugr, see M. Gelling & A. Cole, The Landscape of Place-Names (Stamford: Shaun Tyas, 2000), p. 174.
3.     R. Coates, 'Azure Mouse, Bloater Hill, Goose Puddings, and One Land called the Cow: continuity and conundrums in Lincolnshire minor names', Journal of the English Place-Name Society, 39 (2007), 73–143 at p. 85; VEPN, The Vocabulary of English Place-Names: M, draft version, online edition at, accessed 10 November 2020, p. 14.
4.     Cameron, Field and Insley, Place-Names of Lincolnshire VI, p. 211.
5.     Coates, 'Lincolnshire minor names', p. 85.
6.     VEPN, The Vocabulary of English Place-Names: M, draft version, p. 14.
7.     A. Reynolds, Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 274.
8.     Coates, 'Lincolnshire minor names', p. 85; K. Cameron, The Place-Names of Lincolnshire: Part Two, The Wapentake of Yarborough, Survey of English Place-Names LXIV/LXV (Nottingham: English Place-Name Society, 1991), p. 24—note, a similar name, Blodhowfeld/Blodhowgate, also occurs in Thurmaston parish, Leicestershire. On gastehowe/gasthehowe, see I. M. Bower, The Place-Names of Lindsey (North Lincolnshire) (University of Leeds PhD Thesis, 1940), pp. xviii, 200; for Scratters and Scrathowes, see, for example, A. H. Smith, English Place-Name Elements, Survey of English Place-Names XXVI (Cambridge: English Place-Name Society, 1956), Part 2, p. 126.
9.     Reynolds, Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs, pp. 274–7.
10.     Reynolds, Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs, pp. 219–22.
11.     Middle English Dictionary, 'Makomet(e, n.', in Robert E. Lewis, et al. (eds), Middle English Dictionary (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1952–2001), online edition in F. McSparran et al. (eds), Middle English Compendium (Ann Arbor, 2000–18),, accessed 10 November 2020.
12.     Middle English Dictionary, 'Maumet, n.', in Robert E. Lewis, et al. (eds), Middle English Dictionary (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1952–2001), online edition in F. McSparran et al. (eds), Middle English Compendium (Ann Arbor, 2000–18),, accessed 10 November 2020. For the use of Maumet and similar as a surname, see below and MED sense 2(d).
13.     Reynolds, Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs, pp. 203–04.
14.     Bower, Place-Names of Lindsey, pp. xviii, 253–4; K. Cameron, A Dictionary of Lincolnshire Place-Names (Nottingham: English Place-Name Society, 1998), pp. 26, 80, 107. See also Hawardeshou, the meeting-place of Haverstoe Wapentake, which was almost certainly a barrow in Hawerby (Hawardebi) parish, both names involving the Scandinavian personal name Hāwarth, and Calnodeshou, the meeting-place of Candleshoe Wapentake, which was probably on Candlesby Hill, named from Candlesby, Calnodesbi: Cameron, Dictionary, pp. 27–8, 61. Likewise, the meeting-place of the wapentake of Wraggoe was presumably a Wraghehou (Wraggi + haugr), which may well have been at Wragohill in Wragby (Wraggi + ): Bowers, Place-Names of Lindsey, p. 250; Cameron, Dictionary, pp. 143–4.
15.     K. S. B. Keats-Rohan, 'Queries', Prosopon, 9 (1998), p. 6; J. S. Moore, 'Who was "Mahumet"? Arabs in Angevin England', Prosopon, 11 (2000), pp. 1–7; D. Thornton, K. Keats-Rohan & R. Wood, 'Mahumet', COEL Database: Continental Origins of English Landholders, 1066-1166, [data collection], UK Data Service SN: 5687,; OED third edition, 'Mahomet, n.'; Middle English Dictionary, 'Makomet(e, n.'. See The Great Roll of the Pipe for the Seventh Year of the Reign of King Henry the Second, A.D. 1160–1161, Publications of the Pipe Roll Society IV (London: Wyman & Sons, 1885), p. 10; The Great Roll of the Pipe for the Eighth Year of the Reign of King Henry the Second, A.D. 1161–1162, Publications of the Pipe Roll Society V (London: Wyman & Sons, 1885), p. 13; The Great Roll of the Pipe for the Ninth Year of the Reign of King Henry the Second, A.D. 1162–1163, Publications of the Pipe Roll Society VI (London: Wyman & Sons, 1886), p. 46; The Great Roll of the Pipe for the Tenth Year of the Reign of King Henry the Second, A.D. 1163–1164, Publications of the Pipe Roll Society VII (London: Wyman & Sons, 1886), p. 14; and The Great Roll of the Pipe for the Eleventh Year of the Reign of King Henry the Second, A.D. 1164–1165, Publications of the Pipe Roll Society VIII (London: Wyman & Sons, 1887), p. 57.
16.     K. S. B. Keats-Rohan in Moore, 'Who was "Mahumet"?', pp. 6–7; The Great Roll of the Pipe for the Sixth Year of the Reign of King Henry III, Michaelmas 1222 (London: Pipe Roll Society, 1999), p. 96, and The Great Roll of the Pipe for the Eighth Year of the Reign of King Henry III, Michaelmas 1224 (London: Pipe Roll Society, 2005), p. 12; Calendar of Patent Rolls: Edward III, A.D. 1327–1330 (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1891), p. 123; Close Rolls of the Reign of Henry III: A.D. 1253–1254 (London: HMSO, 1929), p. 211; K. A. Hanna (ed.), The Cartularies of Southwick Priory: Part 1 (Winchester: Hampshire County Council, 1988), pp. 16–17, and K. A. Hanna (ed.), The Cartularies of Southwick Priory: Part 2 (Winchester: Hampshire County Council, 1989); Middle English Dictionary, 'Maumet, n.', sense 2(d), as surname, and Rotuli de oblatis et finibus in Turri Londinensi asservati, tempore Regis Johannis, ed. T. D. Hardy (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1845), p. 455.
17.     Moore, 'Who was "Mahumet"?', p. 3.
18.     Chronicle of Richard of Devizes of the Time of King Richard the First, ed. and trans. J. T. Appleby (London, 1963), pp. 65–6, with modifications by W. Johansson, 'London's Medieval Sodomites', in History of Homosexuality in Europe and America, ed. W. R. Dynes & S. Donaldson (New York and London: Garland, 1992), pp. 159–63.
19.     J. Scattergood, ‘London and money: Chaucer’s Complaint to his Purse’, in Chaucer and the City, ed. A. Butterfield (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2006), pp. 162–76 at pp. 171–2.
20.     Ipswich: BBC, History Cold Case: Series 1, Episode 1—Ipswich Man (broadcast 27 July 2010); 'Skeleton of medieval African found in Ipswich sheds new light on Britain's ethnic history', BBC Press Office, 2 February 2010, online at, accessed 18 November 2020; K. Wade, Ipswich Archive Summaries: Franciscan Way, IAS 5003 (Ipswich: Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service, 2014), pp. 9, 10, 12, online at; and Xanthé Mallett, pers. comm.. Lichfield: C. Coutts, 'St John’s Hospital, Lichfield: a Black and White Medieval Cemetery', talk at the Market Hall Museum, Warwick, on 24 July 2017, online abstract at, accessed 18 November 2020; Jasmine Kilburn, pers. comm..
21.     R. Redfern and J. T. Hefner, ‘“Officially absent but actually present”: bioarchaeological evidence for population diversity in London during the Black Death, AD 1348–50’, in Bioarchaeology of Marginalized People, ed. M. L. Mant and A. J. Holland (London: Academic Press, 2019), pp. 69–114.
22.     Moore, 'Who was "Mahumet"?', p. 1; F. M. Powicke, 'The Saracen mercenaries of Richard I', Scottish Historical Review, 8 (1911), 104–05.
23.     C. R. Green, 'Al-Idrisi's twelfth-century map and description of eastern England', blog post, 28 March 2016, online at, accessed 18 November 2020; A. F. L. Beeston, 'Idrisi's Account of the British Isles', Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 13.2 (1950), 265–80 at pp. 278, 279–80; C. Loveluck, Northwest Europe in the Early Middle Ages, c. AD 600–1150: A Comparative Archaeology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 323 ('Al-Idrisi... had visited England prior to his arrival in Sicily in c. 1138')
24.     C. D. Yonge (trans.), The Flowers of History (London: Bohn, 1853), vol. 2, p. 453.
25.     Calendar of Patent Rolls, Henry III: Volume 5, 1258–1266, ed. H. C. Maxwell Lyte (London: HMSO, 1910), p. 28, and see further M. Ray, 'A Black Slave on the run in Thirteenth-Century England', Nottingham Medieval Studies, 51 (2007), 111–9. Note, ‘Ethiopian’ here probably means simply someone of ‘Black African ancestry’, rather than someone from modern Ethiopia, given Late Antique and medieval uses of this term.

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