Russian Court Processes in the 15th Century

Even after the Mongols retreated from the Rus lands, the economy and culture were still experiencing much turbulence. Officials attempted to rebuild their society from the devastation, and in our readings we have evidence of their attempts to restructure the legal system in the fifteenth century.

The Novgorod Judicial Charter shows us that the archbishop had power to prosecute crimes with his own church court in addition to the mayor of Novgorod’s court. In general, we see improvement in this document compared to the Pravda Russkaia; the details of the jobs of the court are more detailed and the money system for winning a trial has adapted to accommodate the accused and who gets a specific percentage of the money.1

The Muscovite Judgment Charter gives us an idea of the law system in the Moscow region, a city gaining more importance in the recent centuries. It speaks a lot of disputes of land and how these were settled. Normally witnessed were brought in and gave oral testaments based on their memory of the land. These men seemed to be distinguished and longtime members of the village and were therefore trusted in their testimonies.2

Ann Kleimola adds to this analysis of court processes by saying that written evidence was seen as secondly important. Charters, deeds, and other types of documents were used as evidence, but were seen as less reliable because they could be misplaced due to theft or fires. She also makes the case that since the church got involved with court processes, different religious acts were seen as very important, mainly kissing the Grand Prince’s cross and carrying icons to replace pagan practices.3


How did the importance of the Orthodox Church change both laws and court processes since its arrival? What does this tell us of the Church’s importance in day to day life?

Why were oral testaments and witnesses the most important type of evidence for court cases?

What do the different types of written documents tell us about the people and the culture?


Works Cited

Kaiser, Daniel H. and Gary Marker. Reinterpreting Russian History: Readings, 860-1860s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

  1. Kaiser and Marker  109-110 []
  2. Kaiser and Marker 114-115 []
  3. Kaiser and Marker 119-120 []

1 thought on “Russian Court Processes in the 15th Century

  1. I really loved your first question. The fact that the Church had both moral and legal authority gave them a tremendous amount of power. The necessity to “kiss the cross” and give religious law a political backing only helped the Church get an even larger influence on the day to day life of normal Rus’ people. The Novgorod Judicial Charter was similar to the Pravda Russkaia in the way that it granted the Church and its high ranking members the ability to get a monetary gain out of it as well. As mentioned in part 14, the trial could not begin until the one bringing forth the suit as well as the defendant kissed the cross. If the defendant failed to do so, he would lose. This is an example on how Church law changed the customs previously held.

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