Russ-law-art - 7/25/94
"Law Codes of the Kievan Rus'" by Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester.
NOTE: See also the files: Russia-msg, Kiev-Slavery-art, fd-Russia-msg,
Rus-Handbook-art, Russia-bib, Rus-women-art.
This file is a collection of various messages having a common theme that
I have collected from my reading of the various computer networks. Some
messages date back to 1989, some may be as recent as yesterday.
This file is part of a collection of files called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
I have done a limited amount of editing. Messages having to do with
seperate topics were sometimes split into different files and sometimes
extraneous information was removed. For instance, the message IDs were
removed to save space and remove clutter.
The comments made in these messages are not necessarily my viewpoints. I
make no claims as to the accuracy of the information given by the
Please respect the time and efforts of those who have written these
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time. If information is published from these messages, please give
credit to the orignator(s).
Mark S. Harris AKA: Lord Stefan li Rous
Law Codes of the Kievan Rus'
--Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester
The Kievan state was the first large-scale state to dominate the lands
which are today part of Russia, Byelorus, and Ukraine. The history of
this state began with the semi-legendary occupation of the city of
Kiev by Oleg, a man of Scandinavian origins, in 882. A small number
of such men, or "Varangians", attracted by the lucrative Volga trade
routes, apparently migrated to the land of the Rus and gradually
married into the largely Slavic population in the area, giving the
area a culture which was initially Slavic with Scandinavian overtones.
(There is, in fact, still a fairly heated debate among scholars as to
just how pervasive and influential Scandinavian culture was on the
Kievan state). In the next century, the princes of Kiev gradually came
to dominate an area that reached from the Viking lands in the north
down south to the edges of the Byzantine Empire, eastwards into the
great steppes, and as far west as the Balkans.
After the initial period of expansion, which brought Kiev into contact
with the Byzantines to their south, the state then consolidated its
successes into a stable and prosperous union. Kievan society was one
dominated by towns and trade, as one might expect, given its position
along the eastern trade routes; but agriculture formed the backbone
of the state. Contact with Byzantium greatly influenced Kiev's
culture, and probably led in part to its conversion to Christianity
under Vladimir in about 988. Upon Vladimir's death in 1015, a short
civil war ensued as his sons jockeyed for power, but one son,
Iaroslav, won the upper hand by 1019 and divided the kingdom between
himself and his one remaining brother; upon his brother's death in
1036, he ruled all of the Kievan state until his death in 1054.
Iaroslav's reign is usually considered the pinnacle of Kievan
civilization, and history has granted to Iaroslav the epithet "the
Wise". One of Iaroslav's achievements was to codify the customary law
of the Kievan Rus. This law code, or pravda (a Russian word whose
meaning is variously translated as "law", "justice", or "truth",
depending on the context) was later expanded by Iaroslav's sons. The
original code is quite short -- consisting of only 18 articles, it
would easily fit onto two pages such as this one.
Before I discuss the codes themselves, a word about early medieval law
codes in general. There is much contention about whether these codes
were meant for practical use or not. One argument says that early law
codes (such as those made by the Germanic successor states of Rome,
which were essentially a mix of Germanic and Roman law) were meant
not for practical use, but to legitimize the rule of the Germanic
kings by putting their kingdoms on a legal basis. Written laws were
thus a matter of prestige, something every kingdom worth its salt
would have. This thesis goes on to argue that the legislation of
kings was, at best, only a mirror of the customary law practiced in
their lands; at worst, these laws were little more than empty
scribblings. Against this it has been argued that the large number of
existing copies of some of these law codes, some with signs of obvious
wear, are by themselves evidence of the practical intent of the law
codes. The reality of the situation seems to be that both arguments
are in some way valid and that the situation varied considerably from
region to region, depending on, among other things, education level of
the judges, population density, and stability of the state itself.
The simplicity of the earliest Russian law code makes it likely that
its codification was probably an attempt by Iaroslav to claim the
prestige of being the "Father of Russian Law". His father Vladimir's
conversion to Christianity had strengthened the ties to Byzantium that
had been building for some time; Kiev also had begun to cultivate ties
with Western Europe as well. Byzantium, of course, had a long
tradition of law codification, starting back with Justinian in the
sixth century and continuing with novels , or additions to the code,
right down to Iaroslav's own time. Unlike the Byzantines, however,
few of Iaroslav's subjects had ever lived under Roman law. It is not
surprising, thus, to discover that these early laws show little
Anyone who has examined other early law codes will be on familiar
ground with these. Like most early law codes, the Pravda provides a
system of monetary fines for all offenses, from murder to the cutting
off of beards or moustaches. Unlike many other early codes, however,
there is no system of graded wergelds for various levels of society in
Iaroslav's codification-- all free men (nothing is said of women) have
a wergeld of 40 grivna (probably silver grivna are meant, which were
equivalent to one troy pound of silver). Iaroslav's code also permits
certain relatives to avenge murders, but he sought to discourage this
old custom by strictly delineating which relatives had the right of vengeance.
Also covered in the code are penalties for those who harbour runaway
slaves (a fine of 3 grivna plus the return of the slave) and
penalties for slaves who strike freemen and then hide in their
master's house (12 grivna if the master will not give up the slave,
plus the freeman is allowed to beat up the slave).
In contrast with many other early codes, there are no mentions of the
testimony of character witnesses in legal proceedings; however,
eyewitnesses are called for in some cases of assault (though Varangians
are allowed to swear an oath instead). Trial by a jury of 12 men is
also mentioned in connection with commercial disputes, when two
business partners are in dispute about the profits. Commercial
concerns clearly play a large part in Kievan society.
The Pravda of Iaroslav's sons adds a graded wergeld system, mostly in
relation to royal officials (who have a wergeld of 80 grivna ) and
persons of servile status (from 12 grivna for an overseer
down to 5 grivna for a peasant or herdsman. The fine for killing a
horse is 2-3 grivna, incidentally). Fines for killing livestock are
also listed, and the code ends with the fees which bridge builders
receive for their work.
The expanded version of the Pravda (promulgated in the 13th century)
delves much more deeply into actual legal procedure. A graded system
of ordeals and oaths is mentioned for the first time for cases of
theft if the missing item cannot be found. The revised Pravda also
shows much more reliance on eyewitnesses; character witnesses are also
Once again, the great role of trade and commerce in Kievan society
becomes apparent with laws regulating loans and interest (which is not
prohibited, unlike in other parts of Europe), articles advising
leniency towards merchants who have lost their goods in shipwrecks,
and the procedure when a man defaults on loans or debts: he is
brought to the marketplace and all his goods sold; the proceeds go to
pay off first, the prince (if any of his money is involved), second,
out-of-town merchants, and third, local creditors. But agricultural
matters play almost as big a role, particularly penalties for stealing
beehives. Penalties for arson are also detailed.
There are also more substantial sections on class interaction: what
happens when one peasant strikes another, whether slaves can testify
(they can't, except as a last resort, and only higher-ranking slaves
even then). Significantly, this code mentions for the first time that
the wergeld of a free female is one half that of a free male.
Another significant addition concerns inheritance law. The estates of
nobles always go to the children, be they sons or daughters. If a wife
survives, she receives a portion of the estate for her use during her
lifetime (similar to English dower) and anything her husband
specifically leaves her. She is also allowed to stay on the homestead
if she wishes to and manage it, but if she marries again, she must
The subject of wardship is also discussed; the guardian is
responsible for managing the minor's estate and can keep the profits
for his trouble, but if he loses anything, he must repay the
heir.Finally, provisions are made for the fees the officials in the
various courts are to receive.
One can make a much better case for this Pravda as being intended for
practical use. But like English law, Kievan customary law (upon which
these codes are based) was likely a much more complex and flexible
system than these codes reveal. The codifications were a guide to
the judges and established precedent, but were not an end in
themselves, as there were always circumstances which were not covered.
In many ways Kievan law was as advanced as any in Europe (such as in
its reliance on clearly-defined legal procedure and professional
courts), but in other ways it lagged behind-- Western Europe had
gradually been moving away from the system of wergeld (money paid to
the relatives of the injured party in serious cases) to a system in
which murder and other Tfelonies" were an offense against the Crown,
who thus was charged with dispensing justice and levying fines. The
ordeal had also nearly disappeared in Western Europe by the thirteenth
century; even judicial combat, to which the aristocracy clung as
their prerogative, was becoming quite rare. The Kievan state did not
survive the thirteenth century as a unified whole, though some of its
towns continued to prosper through the years of Mongol domination.
The cities of Novgorod and then Moscow would succeed as Kiev's heirs.
How the laws of the Russians evolved in that period must remain to be
told some other day.
Nicholas L. Fr.-Chirovsky, An Introduction to Ukrainian History:
Ancient and Kievan-Galician Ukraine-Rus' (New York, 1981)
Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, A History of Russia, 4th ed. (London, 1984).
G. Vernadsky, trans. Medieval Russian Laws. (Records of Civilization
V. 41). (New York, 1947)
Copyright 1994 by Susan Carroll-Clark, 53 Thorncliffe Park Dr. #611,
Toronto, Ontario M4H 1L1 CANADA. Permission granted for
republication in SCA-related publications, provided author is credited
and receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in
the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also
appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being
reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.
Copyright © Mark S. Harris (Lord Stefan li Rous)
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