Nightbringer | The Arthurian Online Encyclopedia

Sparrowhawk Tournament

Tournaments of the Sparrowhawk

Sparrowhawk tournaments were characterized by their emphasis on chivalric combat and were often depicted as part of the festive events and celebrations in Arthur’s court. The name “Sparrowhawk Tournament” likely derives from the imagery associated with falconry, a popular medieval sport among the nobility. In falconry, a trained sparrowhawk (a type of small bird of prey) was used by falconers to hunt smaller birds. The name may evoke the swift and agile movements of the sparrowhawk, suggesting the agility and skill required of knights in the tournament.

In these tournaments, knights would engage in various forms of combat, such as jousting, swordplay, and melee, demonstrating their prowess in arms and adherence to the code of chivalry. These events provided knights with opportunities to display their martial skills, honor their lords, and vie for glory and recognition among their peers.

The Sparrowhawk Tournaments serve as a colorful element in Arthurian romances, adding to the pageantry and excitement of the medieval courtly setting. They contribute to the depiction of knights as heroic figures engaged in noble pursuits, while also showcasing the competitive spirit and camaraderie inherent in chivalric culture.

Sparrowhawk Tournaments in Arthurian Literature

This type of tournament was first mentioned in Chrétien de Troyes’s Erec. In the stories that feature Erec or Geraint as the hero, the location of the tournament is variously given as CardiffLaluthTulmein, or Kanadic.

The prize of the tournament was a sparrowhawk (or, in some versions, a kestrel or parrot), and it was supposed to go to the most beautiful lady present. If a dispute arose as to the fairest of the ladies at the tournament, the ladies’ knights would fight in single combat until one of them resolved the conflict. As we are introduced to the Sparrowhawk Tournament in each of these stories, an injustice has arisen: a powerful knight has won the tournament several times in a row through force of arms, even though his lady is somewhat plain or manifestly ugly. It is the job of the hero of the story to right this injustice by defeating the knight and awarding the sparrowhawk to the most worthy woman.

In Erec and its adaptations, the hero comes across the tournament during his pursuit of the insolent Sir Yder, who, coincidentally, is also the unrighteous victor of the previous tournaments. Erec (or Geraint) “borrows” Enide so that he can enter the tournament and fight Yder. Erec is victorious, and he awards the sparrowhawk to Enide, with whom, in the meantime, he has fallen in love.

In sparrowhawk stories that do not feature Erec or Geraint, the hero of the story generally comes across a weeping lady who should have won the tournament, but was robbed of the distinction by the unjust knight. In Renaut de Bâgé’s Le Bel InconnuGuinglain champions the lady Margerie against the lord Girflet at the castle of Becleus.

In Wirnt von Grafenberg’s WigaloisWigalois presents the lady Elamie with the sparrowhawk after defeating Count Hojir of Mannesvelt. In the French Durmart le GalloisSir Durmart wins the tournament for Queen Fenise of Ireland at the city of Landoc. In EdolanzSir Edolanz wins such a tournament at Arthur’s court.

In Le Chevalier du PapegauArthur wins the tournament in the name of the Lady Without Pride, fighting the Merciless Lion at the castle of Causuel (in Papegau, the prize of the tournament is a magical parrot, which accompanies Arthur on his further adventures).

Variations of sparrowhawk tournaments appear in Andreas Capellanus’s De Amore at Arthur’s court, in Raoul de Houdenc’s Meraugis de Portlesguez at Lindesores, and in the Vulgate Lancelot at Mill Castle. Since Andreas and Chrétien, the earliest sparrowhawk writers, both wrote in the court of Marie de Champagne, the theme may have originated there.

See also
Merciless Lion | The Legend of King Arthur
Tournament | The Legend of King Arthur

Erec | Chrétien de Troyes, late 12th century
Erec | Hartmann von Aue, late 12th century
De Amore | Andreas Capellanus (Andreas the Chaplain), c. 1185
Le Chevalier du Papegau | Late 14th century or early 15th century
Durmart le Gallois | Early 13th century
Edolanz | Mid-13th century
Le Bel Inconnu | Renaut de Bâgé, 1185-1190
Meraugis de Portlesguez | Raoul de Houdenc, early 13th century
Vulgate Lancelot | 1215-1230
Wigalois | Wirnt von Grafenberg, early 13th century