09.11.19, Feldbrugge, Law in Medieval Russia

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Mark McCarthy

The Medieval Review 09.11.19

Feldbrugge, Ferdinand . Law in Medieval Russia. Law in Eastern Europe, Vol. 59. Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2009. Pp. xxviii, 336. ISBN: 978 90 04 16985 2.

Reviewed by:
Mark McCarthy
Montreat College

I have always found the term "medieval" a bit strange when used in the Russian context. Our earliest known written history of ancient Rus comes from the Primary Chronicle roughly covering the years 850-1110. Even then, the document itself is not the original, but a copy made by a monk in 1377. Thus, the earliest Russian medieval documents known to the scholarly world were written almost nine hundred years after the start of the Middle Ages, well into the Late Medieval Period. This interesting historical anachronism, however, should not dissuade you from reading Ferdinand Feldbrugge's new work, Law in Medieval Russia, which is the fifty-ninth volume of the Law in Eastern Europe series.

In this particular work Dr. Feldbrugge, who is Professor Emeritus of East European Law at Leiden University, has compiled and updated ten different articles that he wrote over the course of his academic career covering different aspects of Russian medieval law. The topics are varied, covering everything from the influence of Roman law on medieval Russia to the concept of land tenure and the Druzhina. In addition, there is a lengthy introduction where he introduces the reader to his source materials: the Primary Chronicle, the First Novgorod Chronicle, individual documents, archives and then secondary sources such as the series Pamiatniki russkogo prava (Monuments of Russian Law).

In his first chapter Feldbrugge leads a discussion on the origins of law and the legal system. Unlike some human practices, the law has not always been in existence. At first there were tribal customs and norms and it was only very gradually that a legal culture began to emerge. Feldbrugge argues that this was a three stage process. The first stage was the emergence of a third party to help settle disputes which led to the second stage which was the specialization and professionalization of the role of the third party. The final stage was the rise of centralized authority to define rules, create new ones and enforce them. Feldbrugge refers to this as the enumerative approach and he points out that even the West's own legal system is continuing to grow and evolve.

Feldbrugge also discusses some issues of ancient law that are common to many of the different peoples of the Indo-European family of languages such as their idea of patriarchy and collective liability. In addition, Feldbrugge deals with the relation of the law and the state and the origins of legislation which he argues developed when there was an occurrence of social friction that could not be dealt with by traditional customs.

This discussion of social friction leads nicely into Chapter Two which deals with the creation of Russkaia pravda (Russian Law). According to Feldbrugge, it was the arrival of the Viking princes who had been invited to rule over the various Slavic groups that brought about the transition from tribal custom to the writing of Russkaia pravda. The traditional tribal customs, however, were inadequate to deal with the new political situation and so they had to be modified. This, together with the introduction of writing with the Baptism of Rus in 988, gave birth to both the short and long versions of Russkaia pravda.

Chapter Three deals with the question of the impact of Roman law on medieval Russia. Given Russia's contact with Byzantium, people have questioned whether Justinian's Corpus Juris Civilis (Body of Civil Law) had any influence on the Russian legal tradition. For the most part Feldbrugge does not believe so. The only evidence that he can find is the idea of double value fine for a particular type of theft which was well known in Roman law, but only found in one article of the Expanded Pravda. There does seem to be some later Byzantine influence from Canon Law. This influence, however, was from the Orthodox Christian tradition and only began in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Chapter Four deals with land tenure, the princely retinue and the very definition of Kievan Rus' past. Feldbrugge argues that the debates concerning the nature of Russia's feudal past are not very productive and are more a holdover from Marxist/Soviet influenced scholarship. Instead, he proposes the question of trade-or-agriculture in helping us understand Kievan Rus. On the whole, trade was more important in ancient Rus which made her more like Byzantium. On the other hand, in terms of general cultural level, societal and economic development, Kievan Rus was closer to agricultural Carolingian Europe.

Chapter Five deals with the Veche or popular assemblies in legal history. This aspect of Russian history has taken on new interest after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 as scholars began searching for possible indigenous traditions of democracy. Feldbrugge argues that the Veche represented a social political order that was already changing by the time we find evidence of it in the documents. He also states that there is no indication that it was valued by its contemporaries for its democratic merits.

Chapter Six examines the practice of hierarchical ranking in society, or, as Feldbrugge refers to it, the idea of the Elder Brother. From ancient Rus and controlled seniority, through the Table of Ranks under Peter the Great, Russia has divided its society into different ranks. After the Revolution in 1917 there was a revival of sorts under Stalin with ethnic Russians being seen as the older, more advanced brothers of the other nationalities and a growing order of precedence at the higher levels of the Soviet system.

Chapter Seven looks at the treaties of medieval Russia. These give us insights into the medieval political and constitutional structure, inferences on the legal system and finally information on specific topics. Feldbrugge identifies three types of treaties: international law, agreements between princes and Russian dealings with groups of merchants. At the end of the chapter Feldbrugge lists all of Russia's treaties from 1189-1503.

Chapter Eight addresses the question whether there are any aspects of the Russian medieval legal tradition that might be seen as supporting a modern concept of Human Rights. Many of the forces that contributed to the development of human rights in Western Europe were not present in Russia. Separation of powers, a strong independent church, or a strong and independent nobility were not part of the Russian experience. On the other hand, Eastern Orthodoxy might have favored autocracy, but it did not promote despotism, and many church and prominent citizens did, on occasion, speak out. Thus even if they lacked a legally defined position, Feldbrugge states that their moral authority to criticize the government was clearly understood.

Chapter Nine deals with legal contacts between Russia and Western Europe in the form of the Skra, or the law code of the Hanseatic merchants in Novgorod. Feldbrugge argued that the two legal spheres of ancient Novgorod and Hanseatic merchants coexisted remarkably well, and that by the fourth, fifth and sixth editions of the Skra one can detect many local Russian influences. In addition, Feldbrugge states that just because the Skra only applied to a small group of foreign merchants does not mean that we should ignore this part of Russian legal history. For several centuries, the German settlements in Novgorod were the most important contact between Russia and Western Europe.

The final chapter deals with medieval law in the region of the Caucuses. Dr. Feldbrugge aims to place Armenian and Georgian medieval law in the context of European legal history. My overall reaction to Dr. Feldbrugge's book is fairly positive. It is quite apparent from the opening pages that legal historians will look at historical documents a bit differently from general historians. On the whole though, many of the documents that scholars have from this time period are legal documents and seeing how a legal historian makes use of them does have value. As Feldbrugge stated in his forward concerning legal and general historians, "the problems they have to solve and the lessons they learn are often the same. In the end, as I believe, the desire to know and to understand, without ulterior motives, is what drives the most worthwhile scholarly work."

Given the fact that it is a collection of articles written over thirty years, it is hard to give a general thesis or idea of the book other than it concerns Russian medieval law. On the whole, the different chapters are very logical in the development of their arguments and are very clearly written. At times there is even a sign of playfulness that one finds with an author who knows his subject matter very well. Other impressive aspects of the book are the glossary of Russian and foreign terms and the appendix listing medieval Russian treaties from 1189-1503.

In terms of any criticism, Feldbrugge is quite open about certain aspects of this work. This is an external legal history. A reader will not find much specifically on family law, commercial law or criminal law. In addition, he is honest concerning his sources and wrote from what he had personally available to him and his university's library. I did have one question about the final chapter concerning Georgia and Armenia. While I did find the discussion of their medieval law traditions quite interesting, I found myself wondering what link they had with the rest of the book except for simple comparison. One could make the case that they fit in with the first chapter's discussion of the early origins of law but it did seem out of place with the other topics of the collection. My biggest complaint, however, centers on the price of the book. Right now Amazon.com lists Law in Medieval Russia for two hundred and forty dollars which seems to be exceedingly prohibitive. In fact, I can only see people who are very interested in this topic or dedicated research libraries spending that amount of money. In a day and age of decreasing faculty funds I find this unfortunate.

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Mark McCarthy

Montreat College