Law and Church in Russia during the late middle ages


  • Russian Pravda

The first arrival of the ‘Russian Pravda’ appeared to be in 1016 and reached its completion in 1170s. In fact, those series of documents were regarded as the most fundamental principle of Russian law until 1546.

The document started as a court handbook in order to provide protection of the people in Novgorod against the various Vikings’ oppression. Throughout the years, many new chapters took place in it , considering different aspects of the Russian society. For instance, Vladimir Monomakh’ (1113–25) was particularly concerned about the debts and how they were paid, since he introduced a new accretions to the document concerning that problem. Furthermore, around 1176, a new chapter was added regarding the status of the ‘slaves’ – which claimed for the first time that the slaves were not animals,but human beings like everyone else with true characters. Despite the existence of those fundamental affairs, it is quite astonishing the fact that by and large the document was consisted of oral evidences written down. But for Pravda, Russian law would have continued its path as providing only oral evidences with questionable faithfulness.

However, according to the document, the possibility of banishment and exile was as strong as the corporal punishment and execution. In its principle the Russian law was somewhat unfair regarding the women, for example if there were no heirs, the land was passed to the prince. It was not permitted to the wives to inherit anything, neither the children of female slaves. On the other hand, another major function of the law was to preserve the Christianity and protect it, facilitating male superiority, but providing protection towards the helpless women and enforcing the feeling of collective responsibility.

Indeed, as every political document, Russian Pravda took over questions as supporting the military power,private property and business trade.


  • Church law

The Church was another major body of the political and social structure of mediaeval Russia with its own laws and rules. The church of Russia was almost as powerful and with inhospitable predominance as in other places around Europe at that time, in terms of staying above the ruler of the country.

In fact, there are to major points ,which are worth to be mentioned in relation with the status of the church law. First of all, the Church people (which population consisted not only by the clergies, bishops,monks and priests, but also widows, beggars and free men) were not permitted to be juridical subjects. In other words , they were not allowed to impose decisions and making judgments regarding the crime in the country. As an quite opposition to the previous prohibition, the second point illustrated how the Church was given right to impose its judgment over some family and common issues, which was viewed by many people as sheer violation of the communal law.

During the 15th century, many questions were raised in close relation with the succession of the dynasty or in correlation with the conflicts between the representatives of the Old Testament, but above all the most important one was the role of the Orthodox Church in the world. Gaining more and more land, the Church in Russia at the very end of 15tth century owned around third of the populated land of Muscovy. This refracted with little sympathy and outrageous rage among many people, who urged that the major objective of the church should have been anything, but the souls’ salvation of the people.

As usual , there were two major views of those who accused the church of Godless by its actions and those who interceded it.  The first called themselves ‘nonpossessors’ , they believed in the holiness of the Church’s image, in the simplicity in which monks should have to lived and in the disengagement of everything, but searching for spirituality. On the second front were the so-called ‘possessors’ whose argument was that in possessing a land, the church was involved in responsibility of regulating society’s needs, those needs included in themselves the schools and the hospitals. Joseph Volokolamsky,fervent defender even said ‘God’s holy churches and monasteries must not suffer injury or violence, and their lands and belongings must not be taken away. … For all Church and monastery property, as well as the fruits of the monks’ labor, are dedicated to God. … He who takes away anything that belongs to a monastery is an offender, and the holy regulations curse him.’

However, we should not take those words as a face value and turn a blind eye on the situation, but consider the both sides with equal judgment. In 1508, Vasilii (Vasily or Basil) III (1479-1533) ascended the throne and became grand prince of Moscovy. According to the historical records, he made everything possible to expand the Church authority and refused to consider the ‘nonpossessors’ objections. It is pretty obvious, how his actions worked in completely unison with his intentions to reinforce his authority and secure his centralization at the same time.  Vassian (Ivan) Patrikieev, who appeared in the court of the prince in order to raise his voice against these misjudgments, said ‘Where in the tradition of the Gospels, Apostles, and Fathers are monks ordered to acquire populous villages and enslave peasants to the brotherhood? …. We look into the hands of the rich, fawn slavishly, flatter them to get out of them some little village. … We wrong and rob and sell Christians, our brothers. We torture them with scourges like wild beasts.

Here we have either one unsolved question whether one of the speculations was untrue and absolutely unfair or we could see how , not for the first time and surely not for the last, the authority works against the common good of the people.


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