Sudebnik of 1550

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The 1550 Sudebnik was a law code compiled by Ivan IV (the Terrible) and his boyars. In 1551 it was submitted for confirmation to the Hundred Chapters Church Council (Stoglav ), on which sat the highest clerical officials. It proclaims that it is to govern all criminal and civil litigation. While the protograph is not extant, forty-three remarkably consistent copies survive. In all copies the text is divided into ninety-nine or one hundred articles.

The structure of the text closely follows that of the 1497 Code: the first section (articles 144) deals with the central courts, held before the grand prince, his boyars, and his okolnichy; the second (articles 4561) deals with judicial documents and the duties of bailiffs; the third (articles 6275) deals with the provincial and rural courts held before the tsar's vicegerents; and the fourth (starting with article 76) contains provisions of substantive law on such subjects as slavery, disputes over land, inheritance, and the sale of chattels and other goods.

Like the 1497 Code, the 1550 Sudebnik is primarily a procedural statute, and a large number of its provisions deal with the financial side of litigation: fees, penalties, amounts to be recovered in civil disputes. The 1550 Code is, however, more than twice the length of the 1497 Code. Its additional and different provisions probably reflect what its draftsmen thought was in need of amendment: that is, where the previous statute was perceived as not working or in need of clarification. While the 1497 Code simply prohibits bribery and favoritism, the 1550 Code provides specific penalties for these offenses, including fines and knouting. One new set of provisions (articles 2224) deals with bringing suit in the central courts against vicegerents, which probably indicates that corruption and misfeasance by rural officials was perceived as an important problem. Procedure in the provincial and rural courts was also regulated in much more detail. One of the obvious goals of the 1550 amendments was thus to strengthen the provisions designed to counter corruption and favoritism. Another provision prohibits the issuance of new immunity charters, under which landholders, usually monasteries, had received jurisdiction over all legal cases except major crimes. The prohibition of further immunity charters increased the centralization of the administration of justice and reduced the legal rights of the monasteries.

Two other new provisions (2526) provide that assault without robbery is to be treated as dishonor (beschestie ), an offense that also included defamation. The amount to be recovered by the dishonored party is set forth. Various rational modes of proof, such as an inquest (obysk ) in the community, are set forth in greater detail than in the earlier code. Some changes from the 1497 Code are, however, only as to form and provide additional detail. For example, articles 814 of the 1497 Code, which deal with prosecuting various crimes, were expanded and moved, somewhat illogically, to the second section of the 1550 Code (articles 5360). The 1550 Code nevertheless represents a more advanced and complete transition from archaic law, which was characterized by composition, irrational modes of proof, and the absence of judicial officials, to a relatively modern system of criminal penalties, rational modes of proof, and the use of judges to resolve disputes. It nonetheless still contains several provisions on judicial duels (although, in fact, such duels were seldom used).

There were several significant additions to the provisions on substantive law in the fourth section. Six sections on slavery describe in detail how one becomes a slave, such as by selling oneself to pay a debt; how a slave can be manumitted; the documents associated with slavery; and new provisions that create a rule of caveat emptor with respect to purchase of a fugitive slave. Section 85 codified the right to redemption by the seller's clan as to land sold by any clan member. Such land could be redeemed by a clan member within forty years at the original purchase price. While the provisions of substantive law are set forth in more detail than in the 1497 Code, the 1550 Code still does not purport to set forth all principles of substantive law. Important rules, such as how to resolve disputes over the ownership of land, remained subject to customary rules or to the discretion of the judge.

In its attempt to deter corruption and its greater detail as to both procedural and substantive matters, the 1550 Code demonstrates the progress of the Muscovite legal systems to a system more predictable and rational.

See also: church council, hundred chapters; ivan iv; law code of 1649; legal systems; sudebnik of 1497; sudebnik of 1589


Dewey, Horace W. (1962). "The 1550 Sudebnik as an Instrument of Reform." Jahrbuecher fuer Geschichte Osteuropas 10(2):161180.

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

George G. Weickhardt