Pskov Judicial Charter

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The Pskov Judicial Charter consists of 120 articles. The preamble states that the Charter was copied from charters of Grand Prince Alexander and Prince Constantine. Most scholars believe the Charter dates back to Alexander Mikhailovich of Tver' (prince of Pskov between 1327 and 1337). Later additions were made by Alexander of Rostov (governed sporadically between 1410 and 1434) and Constantine Dmitrievich (served three times as prince between 1407 and 1414) with further redactions made in 1462 and 14741475. The Charter notes that the provisions were blessed by the priests of the five cathedrals in a meeting of the assembly (veche ) in 1397, but the fifth cathedral was not founded until 1462. In 1397 Novgorod and Pskov concluded an "eternal peace," and it is possible that a redaction was made to formalize Pskov's independence, which existed de facto since 1348. Article 108 stipulates that only the veche may make changes in the Charter.

Princes played important roles in judicial proceedings, particularly for theft, and received judicial fines for such crimes as murder. The prince, mayor (posadnik ), and Novgorodian archbishop all had independent courts. The prince and the mayor had to hold joint courts in the prince's quarters and not in the veche. The Charter consistently admonishes the courts to kiss the cross, judge justly, protect the innocent, and condemn the guilty. Mayors, before leaving office, must conclude all litigation on their docket.

The Charter provides for the death penalty for robbery within the central fortress, stealing horses, treason, or arson. Execution is also mandated for the third offense of theft within the posad, the area outside the fortress. The Council of Lords (gospoda ), the highest administrative and judicial body, decided conflicts over land and forests, and could direct litigants to settle their dispute by duel (trial by combat). Duels were utilized for a wide variety of cases and could end in the death of one of the parties. The old and the weak, the clergy, and women could hire substitutes to fight a man, but duels were permitted between women. Duels were also common in later Muscovite law, despite the opposition of the Church to such practice.

Written and physical evidence and eyewitness testimony were important, as was the kissing of the cross and the giving of oaths, which carried great weight in judicial proceedings. In property disputes, four or five witnesses might be called to testify, but absent such corroborating witnesses, the taking of an oath was sufficient to exonerate a defendant.

The Charter offered certain protections to craftsmen, the poor, and women. A master craftsman had the right to sue for unpaid wages. Even indentured laborers (singular, zakupen ) and herdsmen could sue for their property or grain before the Council of Lords. A widow whose husband died without leaving a last will had the usufruct of the property, unless she remarried. Women could inherit property and leave behind their own wills. The Charter enjoined children to feed their parents, or forfeit their rights to an inheritance.

The Charter gives particular attention to tenant farmers (izorniki ), who could contest the claims of their lords over loans. Lords were required to produce as many as four or five witnesses to support their claims. Tenant farmers, gardeners, and fishermen could not leave their villages except on St. Philip's Fast (November 14), a provision that anticipated the limitations imposed on peasant movement in the Muscovite Law Code (sudebnik ) of 1497. Conflicts over tenant farmers who left their villages legally, or lords who terminated their contracts with a farmer, were resolved by each receiving one-half of the harvest. Lords could recover their loans by seizing the property of tenant farmers who fled illegally. The Charter also provided for inheritance rights of tenant farmers, while it protected a lord's right to recover his loans.

The Charter outlines the duties of bailiffs and their fee schedules. Court procedure required only the two litigants to appear in court to speak for themselves. Women and children, along with monks, nuns, the elderly, and the deaf could have spokesmen. Mayors in particular were forbidden from supporting claimants in court.

The Charter also carefully delineates procedures concerning suits over loans, collateral guarantees, and interest payments, all of which reflect the commercial character of the city. It allowed master craftsmen to sue their apprentices over the cost of their training. Creditors and debtors retained their rights to sue one another over their agreements. Many of these cases would appear before the Council of Lords. There are also provisions regulating brawls that broke out at feasts. Each fraternity (bratchina ), an association perhaps of craftsmen, had jurisdiction over its own members.

See also: novgorod judicial charter; novgorod the great; posadnik


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