Subject Russian Principalities, 1240-1380 The Rise of Muscovy

The Republic of Novgorod in the 13th and 14th Centuries

A.) Novgorod's Constitution

According to Russian tradition, NOVGOROD (literally : the new city) was the first city-principality of the Rus. The city is located on Lake Ilmen, on the Volkhov river, a route the Vikings took through Russia. The city became Russia's link to Scandinavia, it's major trading city in the northwest. In 1138 it became virtually independent from Kiev, elevated to the status of an AUTOKEPHAL EXARCHATE.
Formally, Novgorod was a principality just like the other principalities of the Rus. In practice, the VECHE, the assembly of the city of Novgorod, was in charge; hence the title REPUBLIC OF NOVGOROD. The chief executive administrator was called the POSADNIK. The surrounding countryside, for the larger part inhabited by Finnish speaking peoples, however, was subject to the city.
Novgorod is one of the few places in Europe where 'new', hitherto unknown historical documents keep popping up : BIRCH BARK DOCUMENTS. Texts inscribed in birch barks, often concerning the sale of a plot of land, have been buried in the ground, and due to the climatic conditions and the quality of the soil, preserved over centuries.

B.) Novgorod's Economy

From the vast, thinly populated area to the north, Novgorod drew large amounts of fur, as well as bee's wax and honey, products prized in western Europe as well as in Byzantium.
Novgorod was a major trading centre located on the eastern end of a trade network covering the Baltic and the North Sea. The Gotlanders owned a comptoir in Novgorod, ST. OLAFS YARD, where they had a Catholic chapel and a warehouse. Similarly, the Novgorodians owned such a yard in Visby, equipped with an Orthodox chapel. Later, the Hanseatic League acquired a yard of their own in Novgorod, ST. PETER'S YARD. Russians actively participated in the Baltic trade, but this trade was dominated in the early period by the Gotlanders, later by the Hanseatic League. The Novgorodians believed strongly in law and justice. Trade, as well as diplomatic relations, were based on the concept of justice and equality. Treaties were confirmed by an act called the KISSING OF THE CROSS. If irregularities occurred, trade was often interrupted until the dispute was solved by negotiations.
Since the second half of the 14th century, the economic importance of Novgorod declined. Within the Hanseatic League, the Livonian cities, especially REVAL and DORPAT came to dominate the trade with Novgorod.

C.) Novgorod's Foreign Relations

As already stated, Novgorod virtually gained independence from Kiev in 1138. The city's princes had become representative figures, the city council (Veche) having taken over. It was predominantly interested in the economy, and trade requires peace.
Early in the 13th century, the Swedes invaded and subjugated Finland, the Danes Estonia, the Livonian Knights Livonia. Novgorod regarded large parts of the area taken by the intruders as their domain and assisted the local population in resisting, without lasting success. They regarded the conquest of Novgorodian territory as a breach of law and, while willing to sign peace treaties, refused to engage in trade relations with robber states. So Gotlanders and the Hanseatic League enjoyed a virtual trade monopoly with Novgorod.
When the TATARS invaded the Rus in 1238, the approaching spring saved the city of Novgorod; the frost in the swamps had melted, they were impassable. Novgorod nevertheless voluntarily surrendered to the Tatars, paying tribute to the GOLDEN HORDE for the coming decades.
Swedes and Livonian Knights grasped the opportunity to resume their policy of conquest. The Novgorodians, lead by prince ALEXANDER NEVSKIJ, took up arms and defeated both, the Livonian Knights in 1242 in The BATTLE ON LAKE PEJPJUS (which of course was frozen at that time). This battle fixed the border between Livonia and Novgorod. However, the Swedes kept on pushing and in 1295/1323 managed to push Swedish Finland's border eastward. Eastern Karelia became Swedish, the castle of VIBORG (Viipuri) was established as a Swedish stronghold close to the Neva. In the Southwest, the pagan Duchy of Lithuania became another threat.

Novgorod the Great Homepage
The Rise of Regional Centers, from Library of Congress, Country Studies : Russia
Battle of Peipus Lake, 1242, from Dictionary of Battles
DOCUMENTS The Novgorod Chronicle : Selected Annals, from Medieval Sourcebook
REFERENCE Kievan Rus, in : John Channon and Robert Hudson, The Penguin Historical Atlas of Russia, London : Penguin 1995, pp.22-23
The Chronicle of Novgorod 1016-1471, trsl. by Robert Michell and Nevill Forbes, (London 1914) Reprint n.d., KMLA Lib. Call Sign 947 M623c

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted in 2000, last revised on November 11th 2008

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