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.