Novgorod Judicial Charter

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The Novgorod Judicial Charter exists in a sixteenth-century fragment but was likely first compiled around 1471. By then Novgorod faced a growing military threat from Moscow. In 1456 Moscow imposed the Treaty of Yazhelbitsy, which limited Novgorod's independence in foreign policy, forced the city to cede important territories, and imposed a heavy indemnity payment. Novgorod retained its internal administrative structure, but the city became torn politically between pro-Lithuanian and pro-Muscovite factions. Moscow decisively defeated Novgorod at the Shelon River and imposed a huge indemnity of sixteen thousand rubles. Grand Prince Ivan III received Novgorodian delegations at the mouth of the Shelon and concluded a peace based on the earlier Yazhelbitsy Treaty. The Charter was probably drawn up at this time or soon thereafter, as it reflects Novgorod's administrative structure and liberties before Ivan's arrests of some leading Novgorodians in late 1475 and 1476, and his annexation of the city in 1478.

The Charter records that the archbishop, leading political officers, and urban free population (mayors [posadniki ], chiliarchs [tysyatski ], boyars, well-to-do or ranking men [zhiti lyudi ], merchants, and taxable population) from all five boroughs, who, having met in Yaroslav's court in an assembly (veche ), and having conferred with Grand Prince Ivan III and his son, agreed to the provisions of the Charter. The incomplete Charter abruptly ends in the midst of Article 42. Much of the Charter concerns the prerogatives of the city's judicial system. Significantly, the first four articles asserted the rights of the courts of the archbishop, mayor, and chiliarch. The archbishop conducts his court according to the canons of the Church, and the chiliarch retains the independence of his court. The mayor, however, must conduct his judicial proceedings with that of the grand prince's lieutenant (namestnik ). Although this appears as a limitation of the mayor's prerogatives, it likely reflects longstanding practice, as the text notes that they are to direct the court jointly in accordance with traditional custom. On the other hand, Article 5 affirmed the prohibition against removing the mayor, chiliarch, lieutenant of the archbishop, and all their judges from their courts. The grand prince's lieutenants and judges (tyuny, who were probably slaves) retained a customary right of review.

Heavy fines were exacted according to status for slandering or intimidating the mayor, chiliarch, any of the other judges, or the decisions of trial by combat (the latter a common feature of the Pskov Judicial Charter). Boyars paid fifty rubles, the well-to-do (non-aristocratic wealthy merchants and landowners) twenty rubles, and the remaining free urban population (molodshi, or young ones) ten rubles to the grand prince and Novgorod. These were all prohibitive fines designed to preserve the integrity of the courts. Cases were to be tried and completed within a month, but land disputes could take up to two months; the Charter also stipulated the fees the courts and their officials received.

Court procedures required the two litigants (or their representatives) and no others to confront one another and conduct their cases. Participants including all judges had to kiss the cross, attesting to their truthfulness and Christian faith. Failure to kiss the cross resulted in the loss of the case. Sons could kiss the cross on behalf of their widowed mothers; if a son refused, then the widow could kiss the cross in her home in the presence of the bailiffs. Character witnesses could be called, but the Pskov populace and slaves could not serve as character witness, although a slave could testify against another slave. Litigants were normally given two weeks to rebut witnesses. Boyars and the wealthy conducted referral hearings within the archbishop's residence, which meant that they were probably under the jurisdiction of the Council of Lords. The Charter carefully regulated procedures concerning postponements.

Of particular interest are the Charter's references to the administrative subdivisions of the city. Each borough, street, hundred, or row could send two people to a court or investigation. Unfortunately, the Charter does not clarify the social composition or administrative responsibilities of the urban divisions, which have been the subject of much historical debate. Novgorod consisted of five boroughs, which were divided into hundreds, streets, and rows. The boroughs were under the jurisdiction of boyars, and the hundreds were originally administered by a complex arrangement of princely and urban officials that, by the late twelfth century, was dominated by the city's boyars. The streets and rows may have reflected the interests or administration of the general population of lesser merchants and craftsmen.

See also: novgorod the great; pskov judicial charter; sudebnik of 1497


Kaiser, Daniel, tr. and ed. (1992). The Laws of Russia, Series 1, Vol. 1: The Laws of Rus', Tenth to Fifteenth Centuries. Salt Lake City, UT: Charles Schlacks, Jr.

Vernadsky, George. (1969). Medieval Russian Laws. New York: Norton.

Lawrence N. Langer