Societal Aspects of Post-Kievan Rus

I believe that a lot can be learned about the society of Rus through the interpretation of legal documents such as the Novgorod Judicial Charter. As we already know the Russian Orthodox Church has played a vital role in Russian history since its introduction to the area, and this is a perfect example of the influence it had. By far the most frequently repeated phrase in this legal document is “kissing the cross”. This term referred to the act of kissing the cross as a symbol of a litigants promise to tell the truth during a court case. While this is similar to our modern system of swearing on the Bible, it would mean drastically more to an ancient society which revolved around religion.

This document also shows the considerable power that the Church itself wielded at the time. Like in previous legal codes, the Novgorod Charter states that a portion of fines leveed on criminals would be sent to the archbishop as well as his lieutenant and the steward. This meant that the Church more than likely commanded vast wealth at this point and would have owned large amounts of property coming from criminals who were unable to pay their fines.

Another aspect of this document that I found incredibly interesting was the equality that was commanded by the document. The first rule stated is that “everyone is to be judged equally, whether boyar, [a man of] middling means, or a poor man [lit., a young man]. While we cannot always tell how often these rules were enforced, this shows a clear attempt to give all freemen a legal equality that would not have been seen in other parts of the world at this point in time. However, it should be noted that while this court system seemed to be set up fairly, it revolved around witness testimony, something that has historically been a problem. Not only does your memory change over time, it would not be difficult to bribe or intimidate somebody to say that you were right in your argument.

3 thoughts on “Societal Aspects of Post-Kievan Rus

  1. I think that it’s really cool that the Novgorod Judicial Charter, at least in ideology, supports the idea of equality among men. This is a very advanced idea for the time that the document was written and it’s not very widely seen until years later. It may not have been practiced well, but it’s amazing that they at least thought this to be of high enough priority to detail it in a primary legal charter.

  2. I also find the progression between the Pravda Russkaia and the Novgorod Judicial Charter really interesting. In about four hundred years, the laws changed from focusing on individualized punishments to a complex organization of the legal system. And, as Adrian points how, the laws also changed to ensure that everyone was treated equally under the law. I wonder how exactly this equality came about–were there specific instances in which poor men weren’t treated equally to rich men, and then protested or revolted?

  3. You mentioned several very good points about the church’s influence on the judicial system in 14th-15th century Russia. The appearance of swearing an oath by kissing the cross stuck out to me as well, because of how prevalent it was and how that alone was enough to deem someone guilty should they fail to do it. This made me curious about how common “pagans” or other none-Christians were in Russia at this time, and how the law chooses to deal with them. I wonder whether applying these same laws to groups that had no commitment to the cross more often resulted in non-Christians being punished, or not to non-Christians swearing oaths that they had no issues breaking.

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