The Novgorod Judicial Charter and the Sudbnik

Comparing the Novgorod Judicial Charter and the Susbnik of 1497 tells us a great deal about the evolution of judicial procedures after the arrival of Ivan III. The most drastic change that the Subdnik brought was the introduction of investigations into criminal proceedings. The judicial practices outlined in the Novgorod charter follow three steps: a plaintiff levels a charge, the judge issues a decision, and the defendant is punished or exonerated for wrongdoing. The charter placed restrictions on who could serve as a witness (slaves, for instance, could only act as witnesses in cases where other slaves were being tried) and the court proceedings were threaded with religious rites and rituals.

The Sudbnik, by contrast, introduces a heierarchal judicial structure wherein boyars and major-domos administer justice and secretaries are present in all courtrooms. The sudbnik outlaws bribery and criminal charges in the name of “revenge or favor.” Notably, the document also outlines procedures for overturning unjust court proceedings and for keeping written records of trials and decisions. Even though the new judicial codes were written as the church intensified its presence in Russia, there is no religious influence on the state’s legal practices.

How does the Sudbnik compare to contemporaneous legal codes in western European states? What broader changes did Ivan III bring to Rus’ that we see reflected in his legal codes?

Post Mongol Invasion Law

After the Mongol conquest of Russia was over, law seemed to change by putting a focus on a more civilized and fair society rather than “getting even” with another party.  The Pravada Russkaia was created in the eleventh century and is a long list of crimes and set fines to go along with them. There is little organization to this early Russian law code.

The courts are given much of the responsibility when determining which party is at fault, rather than a set list of fines, after the Mongol Invasion. It is the Prince who is always receiving money from the trials regardless. Before in the Pravada Russkaia, crimes such as murder and theft could sometimes be compromised with a fine, however in the Russian Sudebink of 1497 these deeds are all punishable by death. It is interesting to note that the Sudebink does has a “one strike” policy from some crimes such as in Article 10, where it denotes that a thieve is sometimes eligible for a different consequence, rather than death. There were many more references to the religion in the post-Mongol invasion texts. For instance, The Novgorod Judicial Charter states in Article 4a, that one always must “Kiss the Cross”. Also in Article 58 of the Sudebink it acknowledges that foreigners must also “Kiss the Cross”. The use of evidence was key in these trials. It is thought that the litigants had more power in determining the case rather the judge because they were responsible for gathering and presenting evidence.

Post-mongol era laws provided was much more advanced than before and had a goal of limiting corruption and crime, rather than just punishing it.


1.) How good was the value of one’s word? Because there was so much stress on evidence, case witnesses were used a lot. Was this a loophole in the system?

2.) In what ways did the mongols bring light to the issue of corruption? Considering how much of a social hierarchy the Mongols put in place, it was very important to be able to trust your superiors. Were Russian elites that bad?


Law and economy in Post-Kievan Rus

The Mongol invasion and occupation of Rus changed the economic structure of the country. People in the countryside needed the protection of nobles. This was essentially the roots of the serf system. The law system had also considerably evolved from past systems. The laws were written out and included provisions such as swearing on a cross, an equivalent to among other things our modern day swearing on the bible, and that all where equal in the eyes of the law. Most of the cases that we have records of have to do with property disputes. Fires where not uncommon so records where often destroyed. The system for evidence was also interesting. It appears as though those who were illiterate placed extremely high value on written documents while those who could read including judges placed a higher value on human evidence, even when the memories where 60 years old. It appears that dueling could be used to challenge evidence as well as a manner of determining the case.

I found the equality written into the law to be very interesting. It was declared in the first point of the first set of laws, However it only refers to men. Also the fact that it was written does not necessarily mean it was followed. In our own history we had a time that our constitution said all where equal, yet all people where not treated equally. I wonder if it was the same here? This of course does not even address the fact that the rights of women and children are not addressed there.

Law in 15th Century Rus’

The judicial system of 15th century Rus’ was significantly more developed than the old system used during the time of Kievan dominance. While we don’t have much more evidence for the Kievan judicial system, we do know the basics of the system. In contrast, a large amount of evidence remains from the Post-Kievan period that details the workings of the system, and in many cases, individual court cases.

The system used in 15th century Rus’ was probably more developed because of use and years of troubleshooting. The system had a large amount of time to grow by “verbally and mentally recorded case-law”. The judges that were found in the 15th century would have learned how to deal with issues not detailed in the main law codes through years of experience and teaching from former judges.

Despite the amount of development and use for the judicial system, some of the practices remaining are quite contradictory to today’s standard judicial systems. In this instance, we’ll use a land dispute between two parties as an example. A judge would travel to the location of the dispute and mediate the argument between the two parties by determining which party has the stronger evidence. The most important evidence to have is the word of local men (preferably elders) who have good knowledge of the area. Second to this is written evidence, such as a deed or charter. After these evidences, should neither party have them or should no conclusion be reached, judges would often rely on “God’s justice” or divine intervention for the decision to be made. An example of a method used by these judges is having one party kiss a cross and walk the border of the land that they claim. If they are telling the truth, then they will not be punished by God for lying (it’s very similar to what would commonly be used for witch trials). If all of these evidences fail, then the two parties would send a representative to duel with each other.

Despite the significant developments of the judicial system since Kievan times, the system employed by judges in 15th century Rus’ was not perfect. The main problems lie with their categorization of evidence. Judges would take the word of a local elder over any documents that could be presented, but these locals were often biased in their testimonies and would back a party regardless of the truth. So, the “truth” was often found in power, influence, money, or a big family.

Law and Women in Early Rus Society

The two law codes we have read for the people of Rus are very different. They show changing attitudes to governance, punishment, and women. The First law code we read, the Pravada Russkaia, mostly describes crimes that pretty much everyone would have a problem with. They are things like theft, violence, and destruction of property. The mechanism for enforcement is the wronged party. The second set of laws we have read, Iaroslav’s Statute, Are much broader. Instead of before when crimes such as rape where left out, probably because everyone knew what to do about it, they are included. There are lots of new laws about women, their actions, and actions against them. There is also the inclusion of laws with religious reasons. Punishments no longer go just to the wronged party, but they may now also have to be paid to the Metropolitan or the Church. Some crimes even require people to go to covenants. The laws protected people especially women from things such as being kicked out of their house, or raped, but also restricted rights we would see as very important today.

In early Rus the Orthodox Church had a heavy hand in people’s views of women. The Church had a way of viewing women that we might refer to as the “Madonna/Whore complex.” Women where either good or evil based on a set of guidelines we today would most likely not think of. However that does not mean that women where without power in the society. There was evidence of them doing everything from being mayors of towns to brewing their own beer. While this might have set them occasionally at odds with the Church they where still able to enjoy greater freedoms. The Church’s opinion of women was widespread it often did not reflect the actual position of women, who often had prominence than they where given credit for. I wonder how comparable the situation of women was in Rus to other places around the world at the same time.