Sudebnik of 1497

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The 1497 Sudebnik was Russia's first national law code. Unlike earlier immunity charters, which pertained only to a private landholder and his land, and the Dvina Land Charter (1397) and White Lake Charter (1488), which pertained only to particular localities, it promulgated rules of general application for Muscovite courts. Adopted after Ivan III had gathered in the lands of Novgorod, Tver, and other principalities, the Code is usually interpreted as part of Ivan's policy of nationbuilding. The short preamble states that the Code was adopted by Grand Prince Ivan with his children and boyars. Thus, unlike some of Muscovy's other legislation, it was not associated with an assembly of important prelates and servicemen.

A single copy of the Code has come down to us, which was found and published by Pavel Stroev in 1817. Most modern editors divide it into sixty-eight articles, but the original also contains thirty-seven chapter headings. Articles 1 through 25, in general, concern courts presided over by boyars and okolnichy, the two highest service ranks, with some attention also to the court of the grand prince. Clerks (dyaki ) were to sit with the boyars and okolnichy in these courts, and were to prepare not only a written trial record but also a written judgment. These courts were to exercise jurisdiction over major crimes, such as murder, robbery, and theft, and the death penalty was provided for certain crimes. Articles 26 through 36 concern judicial documents such as summonses, warrants, and default judgments, as well as the duties of judicial officials such as bailiffs. The bailiffs were charged not only with serving such judicial documents but also with interrogating suspected criminals. Articles 37 through 45 concern the courts of the namestniki and volosteli, the grand prince's vicegerents in rural areas. The jurisdiction of these courts depended on whether the judge was granted full jurisdiction. Many of the provisions of the first section are repeated in the third.

The Code thus either established or confirmed the previous existence of at least three levels of courts: that of the grand prince, that of the boyars and okolnichy, and that of the vicegerents. These were probably not permanent or standing courts in the modern sense, because the officials serving as judges had substantial other administrative and military duties. All courts used documents at nearly every stage of judicial proceedings: to initiate the lawsuit, to summon the defendant, to procure attendance of witness, and to record the judgment. The first three sections of the code are largely devoted to the procedural and more specifically the financial side of litigation. No less than thirty-six articles deal with fees and payments to be made to the court, and another fifteen concern damages and payments to private persons. Prohibition of bribery is mentioned several times. Plainly one of the priorities of the Code was to prevent bribery and the exaction of excessive fees. There are also numerous provisions on judicial duels, but actual court records indicate that such duels were seldom used to resolve litigation. Eyewitnesses and torture are also prescribed to resolve certain types of matters. The 1497 Code thus represents the transition, albeit incomplete, from so-called archaic law, characterized by composition (bloodwite), no judicial officials, and irrational modes of proof (trial by ordeal and combat), to a modern system of criminal penalties, judges and other judicial officials, and the use of witnesses and documents as evidence. The Code was also significant in introducing or confirming a document-based system of litigation.

The fourth section, starting at article 46, contains miscellaneous rules of substantive versus procedural law, the most famous of which is article 57, which requires a peasant to pay his lord a certain fee in the week before or the week after St. George's day if he is to have the right to move elsewhere. There are also various provisions on inheritance, manumission of slaves, loans, and boundaries. The fourth section, however, does not contain all of the substantive rules of law that would be necessary to administer justice. For example, most of the reported cases of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries deal with title to and ownership of land, but the Code contains virtually no rules or standards for deciding such cases.

Because the Code is primarily a procedural statute and contains only an incomplete listing of substantive rules of law, one might ask where the judges would look to find the substantive rules. Commentators have suggested that the judges would look to customary law or to certain Byzantine law manuals. Another possibility is that, in most cases, judges simply applied their own rough sense of justice, and that litigation was not generally conceived as the application of published or even customary rules.

See also: ivan iii; law code of 1649; legal systems; muscovy; okolnichy; sudebnik of 1550; sudebnik of 1589


Dewey, Horace W. (1956). "The 1497 Sudebnik: Muscovite Russia's First National Law Code." The American Slavic and East European Review 15:325338.

Dewey, Horace W., ed. (1966). Muscovite Judicial Texts, 14881556. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Dept. of Slavic Languages and Literature.

George G. Weickhardt