Sudebnik of 1589

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The Sudebnik of 1589 was the third in a series of four Russian legal monuments by that name. They comprise the core of middle Muscovite jurisprudence. The first two Sudebniki were compiled in 1497 and 1550, the last in 1606. This series of legal compilations was crowned by the Ulozhenie of 1649, one of the greatest of all Russian legislative documents and one of the most impressive in the entire early modern world.

The codes of 1497, 1550, 1606, and 1649 were all promulgated by governments in Moscow, but the Sudebnik of 1589 was compiled anonymously in the Russian North, the Dvina Land, for unknown purposes. The 1550 Sudebnik remained the major operational legal code throughout Muscovy for the next ninety-nine yearsto the extent that there was one during and after the Time of Troubles. Few copies of the 1589 document are extant, but it is known that it was occasionally cited by othersprobably because it contained the 1550 Sudebnik and its seventy-three supplemental articles, as well as special laws of interest to the Dvina Land.

The Sudebnik of 1589 has been thoroughly studied, and it is known which of its 289 articles originated in which of the sixty-eight articles of the Sudebnik of 1497 and in which of the one hundred articles of the Sudebnik of 1550. About 64 percent of the 1589 code's articles originated in 1550 (some of them were expanded), about 9 percent came from statutes of 1556, and about 27 percent were new.

By 1589 Russian law had completed the move from the medieval dyadic legal system to the more modern triadic system. In the medieval era, state authority barely existed, and law was as much a device for raising revenue by officials as it was a tool for conflict resolution. In the first third of the sixteenth century, state officials began to play a much more active, inquisitional role in the judicial process and tried both to deter and to solve crimes. Medieval wrongs were treated as torts, but by 1589 they were regarded as crimes. Crimes included murder, arson, battery, robbery, theft, treason, bribe-taking, rebellion, recidivism, sacrilege, slander, and perjury. Sanctions included fines, capital and corporal punishment, mutilation, and incarceration.

Around 1550 the importance of literacy increased dramatically, and Muscovy began its transition from an oral society to one in which documents were increasingly important. The evolution was crucial in the laws of evidence, as faith-based evidence such as oaths, ordeals, and the casting of lots began to yield to written evidence. Witnesses, visual confrontations, general investigations, and confessions also grew in importance. The law as a revenue instrument for officials remained strong in 1589, and those officials were not supposed to be corrupt. The 1589 code paid considerable attention to establishing judicial procedures.

There was considerable social legislation in the 1589 Sudebnik. Slaves of various sorts were mentioned, as was the fact that the peasants, discussed frequently, were in the process of being enserfed. Only perhaps 2 percent of the population were townsmen, but commerce was important in the Dvina Land. The collection of interest was permitted, at a maximum of 20 percent per year. Like most law, the Sudebnik of 1589 was concerned with cleaning up "social messes" and providing an infrastructure for the orderly resolution of conflicts in property and inheritance disputes, especially important in the Dvina Land where peasants still owned most of the land. Priority was also given to the preservation of the social order, particularly male dominance and other gender distinctions.

See also: law code of 1649; legal systems; muscovy; sudebnik of 1497; sudebnik of 1550


Hellie, Richard. (1965). "Muscovite Law and Society: The Ulozhenie of 1649 as a Reflection of the Political and Social Development of Russia since the Sudebnik of 1589." Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago.

Hellie, Richard. (1992). "Russian Law From Oleg to Peter the Great." Foreword to The Laws of Rus': Tenth to Fifteenth Centuries, tr. and ed. Daniel H. Kaiser. Salt Lake City, UT: Charles Schlacks.

Richard Hellie