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. ((Kaiser and Marker  109-110))

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. ((Kaiser and Marker 114-115))

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. ((Kaiser and Marker 119-120))


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.

Post Kievan Rus’ economy and society


Looking back at post Kievan Rus’ the only thing we can all agree on is that we don’t know enough. The information gathered is mangled and confusing but if looked at in depth it does give us an idea of what society was like.

In chapter seven the economy and society of post Kievan Rus is explored through a few documents. In examine these texts “the reader ought to note what the laws tell us about social differentiation, about the legal standing of women, and about the role of documentation in judicial hearings.” (109). The first is the Novgorod Judicial Charter from the late fifteenth century. Compared to the other texts we have from the Kievan Rus’ the rules seem much more modern and thoughtful. People are expected to pay different amounts as punishment for wrongdoing depending on their wealth. This idea was not present in earlier texts. It seems women were somewhat present in court cases. The charter discusses women kissing the cross in their own home, which insinuates they were not welcome in the official court but a complaint could be filed against them. It is clear that documentation was much more widely used then in previous court dealings. The use of documentation is discussed even more in the second charter. In A Muscovite Judgment Charter tells of a specific court case. In this case the use of documentation is evident and is a large part of the case. The Judge oversaw proceedings but was not the one who made the final decision. He asked questions and guided the case. The importance of “God’s justice” was also an influence.


What was God’s justice and what did it entail? Was it just another was for the Russian Orthodox to control the people of Rus’?


What does the newfound use of documentation tell us about the change the Mongols brought to Rus’?

Post-Mongol Law

One point that stood out in post-Mongol law was the emphasis placed on the equality of all men. Unlike the Pravda Russkaia, in which societal rank was deeply important, the Novgorod Judicial Charter specifically articulates that the archbishop is to judge everyone equally, regardless of if they are a boyar or a poor man. Additionally, if a party is guilty of slander, the Grand Prince is to take 10 rubles from the guilty party if he is a poor man, and 50 rubles if he is a rich man. This consideration of a guilty party’s means is not evident in the Pravda Russkaia, in which the same amount is paid for a crime regardless of the guilty party’s economic class. Also, in post-mongol law, the boyars do not appear to be valued more highly than poor men. For example, the societal rank of the victim of a crime does not appear to be taken into consideration when deciding the punishment. If someone robs a boyar’s house, the punishment appears to be the same as the punishment for robbing a poor man’s house.

The phrase, “kiss the cross”, is repeated multiple times in post-mongol law, indicating that the Church has a large influence in legal proceedings. It appears that kissing the cross is a way to ensure that a man speaks the truth and acts honestly in court. Kissing the cross perhaps serves as a reminder that God is present in every court proceeding and it is He who makes the final decision, not the judge alone.

Although “kissing the cross” was mentioned frequently, there was no reference to priests in post-Mongol law. Did priests have any role in court proceedings?

Who served as a judge? Was he connected to the Church at all?

How did the Orthodox Church fit into post-Mongol law?



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?


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.