By Radoman Stankovic


Political circumstances in the Balkans on the eve of Dushan's coming to the throne were rather complex. Powerful Byzantium started to decline, and young Serbian King Stephan Dushan, Stephan of Dechani’s son, wanted, by getting crowned in 1331, to replace weakened Byzantium with the powerful Serbian-Greek Empire. Immediately after he had ascended the throne, Dushan enlarged his territory, so that the Serbian state soon extended from the Danube to the Gulf of Corinth and from the Adriatic to the Aegean Sea. Thus, conquering a large territory, Serbia was under the influence of the Byzantine Empire. Both Serbian and Greek language were the official ones. Even Tsar Dushan wrote charters and signed in Greek. In that way he wanted to show respect to the Byzantine legal order sanctified by the authority of the Orthodox Church and a thousand year old great empire. For the same reasons did Dushan’s half-brother Simeon consider himself a Greek rather than a Serb, and John Asen Comnenus, his wife’s brother, signed his Serbian charters in Greek. Byzantium influenced the arts, too. After the coming of Serbs to Macedonian regions, the Byzantine style could be discerned in the Serbian architecture (Mother of God Ljevishka in Prizren and Grachanica in Kosovo) pushing gradually out “the school of Rashka”. The Byzantine style of the Palaeologue epoch became dominant in the Serbian architecture.

Since the time of the Roman Empire, one of the main imperial duties was the legislative one. Tsar Dushan’s codification work was supposed to be, among other things, a confirmation of his right to an imperial crown and the power of an empire. Thus, the reasons for the existence of the Code were, above all, of legal and political nature, since “in the 14th century Tsar Stephan Dushan was perhaps the most powerful ruler in Europe; it seemed that Constantinople was undoubtedly within his reach.”

By proclaiming himself emperor of the Serbs and Greeks, Dushan showed that he aspired to a legitimate rule over the subjects of the Byzantine Empire. That was why he used Byzantine laws and canons of the Byzantine Church as his own. So was Byzantine law built in the foundations of the entire system of medieval Serbian law.

The work on the Code had certainly started several years earlier, before its official declaring at the Council in Skopje in 1349. For the writing of the Code it was necessary to be acquainted with Byzantine law, Serbian written legal sources, Serbian common law, as well as with the circumstances in the country – the Code had to be in accordance with the development of the legal conscience of that time. Five years later (1354), new regulations were added to Dushan’s Code.

Apart from common law and domestic written legal sources, the first written legal source of Byzantine origin was used in Serbia already at the beginning of the 13th century. After the proclaiming of the autocephaly of the Serbian Orthodox Church, in 1219, Saint Sava issued Patriarch Photius’ Nomocanon. In the Nomocanon of Saint Sava the most important parts were church regulations (canons), the whole Procheiron and a part of Justinian’s Code. St. Sava’s Nomocanon was rather significant in the Serbian legal system of Dushan’s time, too. At that time, in Byzantium appeared new legal codes; Syntagma of Matija Vlastar, a monk and canonist from Thessalonica, written in Greek in 1335. The bases of this code are John Zonara’s interpretations, as well as Theodore Balsamon’s ones of the beginning of the 12th century, from 1169 to 1177. Since Syntagma was directly opposed to the interests of the Serbian Empire, it did not become part of Dushan’s Code in its original form, but as a redaction, known as Shortened Syntagma, together with Justinian’s Code which was a compilation of Byzantine secular laws (Vasilik, Procheiron and Ecloga).

Dushan’s Code originated at the time of a completely developed feudal system and clear class distinctions. At that time Serbia had already surpassed common law, the existing single written legal regulations of domestic and Byzantine origin and the Nomocanon. The solution was found in a wider codification work, the most important result of which was Dushan’s Code.

Particularly noteworthy is the first part of the Code of 1349, with 135 articles. In 1354 were added articles from the 136th to the last one, in order that as many social relationships as possible be standardized by means of law. In the first part of the systematized articles there are church regulations. The Church had a large number of privileges both as a religious institution and as the greatest feudal owner in Serbia. The State protected its Church in every way, and the Church, due to its influence upon religious medieval men, provided obedience to the authority of the State, to which it ascribed divine origin. Such a relation between Church and State came from Byzantium and remained unchanged all until the fall of the Serbian Empire.

The Code regulated basic class relationships and determined the character of governmental and social structure, and it could be considered as medieval Serbia’s “Constitution”. The rights and obligations of the lords and peasants were dealt with in the second, larger part of articles. The position of the ruler in regard to the lords, the position of the Church and secular lords in regard to the rest of the population, their rights and duties, as well as the forms of feudal property, are a substantial part of the Code.

The supreme authority in feudal Serbia of the first half of the 14th century was the one of the ruler’s. He did not, however, rule all by himself, but with the help of the state council. The legislative power of the ruler, who was at the head of a strong centralized State, was expressed in the Code.

Councils, whose mentions may be found mainly in legislative monuments of Tsar Dushan’s time, were old institutions, mentioned in legal sources back in the 12th century. Councils consisted of clergymen, lords and the ruler and his family. Those were not the representatives of the people, but a group of privileged classes with the ruler at the head. The lords were a powerful and privileged class in Serbia, whose power was founded on their land property, in contrast to the serfs – the unprivileged dependent population (free peasants, Wallachs, slaves and a number of rural priests).

There is a small number of civil law regulations in the Code: real law, law of obligation, law of marriage and law of inheritance.

A great part of Dushan’s Code concerns criminal law, introducing a new term for guilt – “sagre{enije” (sin, transgression). That meant the violating of a law or moral commandment, which, according to the Byzantines, was at the same time against the divine law. The punishments were very cruel, and Dushan’s Code included all forms of crippling except castration.

The organization of the judiciary in Serbia was not uniform. There were several types of courts whose competence was divided according to the categories of the population and the kinds of crimes (church court, court for lords, state court). The church court tried members of the clergy for all crimes. In Dushan’s Code there are no direct data concerning courts for lords, but one may conclude from some articles that they existed. Dushan’s Code established the state courts which were competent for the crimes of secular lords.

Besides the district state courts, there was also a court at the very emperor’s court, and it was competent for the lords that lived at the court. One supposes that there were mine courts which were competent for miners.

The original of Dushan’s Code, which was presented at two legislative councils, in 1349 and 1354, has not been preserved. There have been discovered 25 manuscripts (transcripts) that originated in the period from the 14th to 19th century. Not all of the discovered 19th and 20th century manuscripts have been recorded yet. Each of those manuscripts has its particular redactional characteristics. The comparative studies, or the scientific historiography, of the discovered manuscripts of Dushan’s Code started with Pavel Joseph Shafarik, a well-known Slavist of the first half of the 19th century. Shafarik began his comparative studies of Tekelija’s, Rakovac and Hodosh manuscript in 1831, in the Vienna Literary Annual. Dushan’s Code was published for the first time in 1795, according to the text of a more recent transcript, the so-called Tekelija’s manuscript, of the 18th century, and it appeared in the fourth book of the History of Slavonic Peoples by Jovan Rajich. The Rakovac (Novi Sad) manuscript was published in 1828, by Dj. Magarashevich, and in 1831 Shafarik also found the Hodosh manuscript. After Shafarik came several prominent Slavonic scientists who continued the studying of Dushan’s Code: V. A. Machejevski, A. F. Kuharski, T. T. Zigelj, D. T. Florinski, S. Novakovich, A. Solovjev, N. Radojchich, V. Bogishich, Dj. Magarashevich, J. Djordjevich, V. Mo{in and others. Today, the literature on Dushan’s Code has around eight hundred bibliographic units.

Immediately after its appearing in Rajich’s history, Dushan’s Code was translated into foreign languages, first in German and French. In the year of 1870 Stojan Novakovich published the Prizren transcript, the second complete text offered to the scientific public, which was supplemented with several articles of the Belgrade (Rudnik) transcript. The same manuscript was later prepared by T. Zigelj, according to the outstanding transcript of V. I. Lamanski. Soon after that appeared a new, very important edition of Dushan’s Code prepared by K. Jirechek.

During those ninety years since the first publication of the Code in Rajich’s history, only four manuscripts were published in their integral form: Tekelija’s, Rakovac, Hodosh and Prizren manuscript. T. D. Florenski’s detailed study regarding Tsar Stephan Dushan’s legislative activity, written in the eighties of the 19th century, and, particularly, his publishing of the texts of several manuscripts of Dushan’s Code are a great contribution to the publishing of Dushan’s Code and to the analysing of its manuscripts. Florinski added to his study the integral texts of four manuscripts – the Struga, Athos, Ravanica and Sofia manuscript. In various chapters of his study he introduced new and more detailed descriptions of all seventeen manuscripts of Dushan’s Code that he had found, and he partly compared their redactional variants. In that way he presented the contents and character of the unpublished manuscripts – the Bistrica, Shishatovac and Belgrade manuscript.

After the failure regarding his first edition, at the end of the 19th century Stojan Novakovich prepared a new edition of the Code according to the text of the Prizren transcript, adding several articles from the Athos, Bistrica and Rakovac manuscript, observing its original scheme of articles. In that edition Novakovich presented the text’s translation into the modern Serbian language. In the introductory study the author described 22 manuscripts of Dushan’s Code. The second edition served as the basis of many new editions and translations into foreign languages, and as the main edition for scientific interpretation in the science of history and law.

On the eve of World War II appeared A. Solovjev’s edition of the Grbalj manuscript of Dushan’s Code. That was the first time that the text of one of the Montenegrin-coastal redactional versions of Dushan’s Code appeared. After World War II, V. Moshin published three new transcripts: the Studenica, Zagreb and Bogishich’s manuscript. Thus, basicaly, the coastal group of Dushan’s Code’s manuscripts was completed.

Nikola Radojchich’s contribution to textological and bibliographic questions concerning Dushan’s Code’s manuscripts is very important; he was the first one who published the photoprinted editions of the complete texts of the Prizren and Struga transcript.

Today, the following transcripts of Dushan’s Code are known: Struga manuscript of 1395 (State Library, Moscow, Cod. 29 M 1732); Athos manuscript around 1418 (State Library, Moscow, Cod. 28 M 1708); Hilandar manuscript of the first third of the 15th century, Library of the monastery of Hilandar, Cod. 300); Studenica manuscript of 1426/36 (Zagreb, Academy of Sciences and Arts, Cod. IV d 114); Bistrica manuscript of 1444/54 (State Historical Museum, Moscow, Cod. 151); Baranja manuscript of 1479/99 (University Library, Belgrade, Cod. 39); Prizren manuscript of the end of the 15th or beginning of 16th century (National Library of Serbia, Belgrade, Cod. 688); Hodosh manuscript around 1440 (National Museum, Shafarik’s collection, Prague, Cod. IX F 10); Ravanica manuscript of the middle of the 17th century (National Museum, Prague, Cod. IX H 7); Sofia manuscript of the middle of the 17th century (National Library St. Cyril and Methodius, Sofia, Cod. 239); Rakovac manuscript of 1700 (National Museum, Prague, Cod. IX D 2); Bordjosh manuscript of the 17th century (Library of Matica Srpska, Novi Sad, Cod. 176); Tekelija’s manuscript of the 17th century (Library of Matica Srpska, Novi Sad, Cod. 352); Stratimirovich’s manuscript of the end of the 17th or beginning of 18th century (Library of Matica Srpska, Novi Sad, Cod. 352); Kovilj manuscript of 1726 (Library of Matica Srpska, Novi Sad, Cod. 353, A 21); Zagreb (Pashtrovichi) manuscript of the middle of the 18th century (Academy of Sciences and Arts, Zagreb, Cod. III a 28); Patriarchate (Karlovac) manuscript of the 18th century (Patriarchate Library, Belgrade, Cod. 42); Karlovac manuscript of the 1764 (National Library of Serbia, Cod. 42); Grbalj manuscript of 1772 (National Museum, Vrshac), Jagich’s manuscript of the middle of the 19th century (Library of Jagich’s Seminar, Belgrade, J 1602), Bogishich’s manuscript of the middle of the 19th century (Bogishich’s Library, Cavtat); Popinac manuscript of 1784/85 (Library of Matica Srpska, Novi Sad, Cod. 352, A 22). Apart from these 24 transcripts, there had also been the Rudnik (Belgrade) manuscript of the 17th century, which burnt in the National Library of Serbia on the occasion of the bombing on 6th April 1941.

Each of these manuscripts is a redactional version of its kind, with its particular language, its orthographic and other characteristics. That is why each of these manuscripts has a certain significance in scientific researches, both in the historical-legal science and in other scientific disciplines: political, cultural and economic history, philology, history of the arts and so on. Dushan’s Code is a work of a particular legislative activity, regardless of the fact that it is at the same time part of the general legislature of the medieval Serbian state.

More recently, in 1975, the Committee for the Sources of Serbian Law, of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts in Beograd, began the publishing of all transcripts of Dushan’s Code, observing at the same time their chronology and applying modern methods of archeography, that is codicology, textology and filigreeology. So far three volumes have appeared, with the following transcripts: Struga and Athos transcript (Volume One), Studenica, Hilandar, Hodosh and Bistrica transcript (Volume Two), Baranja, Prizren, Shishatovac, Rakovac, Ravanica and Sofia transcript (Volume Three). The most recent translation of Dushan’s Code into the modern Serbian language, with an introductory study, was prepared by Biljana Markovich as a part of the series Old Serbian Literature in 24 books.

Dushan’s Code, the most important monument of medieval Serbian law, ranks high in the history of the Serbian literature. Besides typical medieval literary characteristics, in a work of such profile one finds a combination of the Church Slavonic, solemn and popular language, common and bureaucratic one. Charters are the most evident examples of how the modern classification of literary genres cannot be applied to the medieval Serbian literature. Due to their legal regulations, charters do not belong to belletristic literature, but with their ideology of authority and equity, praying atmosphere, autobiographical accounts and attractive narration, they may be sometimes considered as truly spiritual and exciting examples of the Serbian prose. The known Byzantine legal codes, translated from the Greek into the Old Slavonic language, with Serbian codifiers’ rather special selection and composition, such as St. Sava’s Nomocanon and Vlastar’s Syntagma, enriched, with their language and their characteristic condensed way of expressing, the medieval Serbian culture not in a lower degree than the translations of volumnious poetic works such as menaia, triodia or octoechi, or hagiographic-biographic synaxaria, reading menaia, panagyrics. That is why Dushan’s Code has to be considered as a literary work, too. In this code, the rhetorical style with exact formulations of the language of law, the language of the high style of the Church Slavonic tradition, meets the polished vernacular. Together with other legal codes and texts, as well as charters, among which distinguish themselves, by their polysemy, monastic founding documents, Dushan’s Code is a great achievement of the Serbian culture and Serbian literature of the Middle Ages. Written in the middle of the 14th century, at the height of that progress that had started back in the last years of the 12th century, concerning also the fine arts and the strengthening of the Serbian state, the Code was transcribed in the following times not only as a collection of legal regulations and a heritage of a State, but also as a testimony of a noble, refined and expressive literary word.

Serbian Tsar Stephan Dushan became a great legislator, like Emperor Justinian, Leo VI the Wise and Basil I, holding on to the spirit and tradition of Roman–Byzantine law. The sources of the Code were not just Byzantine ones. From Byzantium came only its ideological foundation and legal model of codification through which a uniform legal system was introduced in the Serbian and Greek lands. “The Legal Code of Blessed Tsar Stephan Dushan” is an epochal legislative and constitutional work of European culture and civilization.

The Law


The law of the true-believing Tsar Stephan.
In the Year 6857, Indiction 2, at the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord,
on the 21st Day of the Month of May

We enact this Law by our Orthodox Synod, by His Holiness the Patriarch Kir Joanikije together with all the Archpriests and Clergy, small and great, and by me, the true-believing Tsar Stephan, and all the Lords, small and great, of this our Empire.

These Laws provide:

1. On Christianity

First, concerning Christianity. In this manner shall Christianity be purged.

2. No lords or any other persons shall marry without the blessing of their own archpriest, or of those chosen and appointed as priests by the archpriests.

.3. And no wedding shall take place without nuptials. If any marry without the blessing and permission of the Church, such persons shall be legally separated.

4. On Spiritual Matters

And in spiritual matters, every man shall show submission and obedience to his archpriest. And if any person be found committing a sin against the Church, or transgressing against any rule of this Law willingly or unwillingly, such a one shall yield and submit himself to the Church. But if he disobey and evade the discipline of the Church and be not willing to follow the orders of the Shurch, he shall be excommunicated.

5. The bishops shall not curse the Christians for spiritual sins: but shall send twice and thrice to reproach him who has sinned. And if he does not obey and shows himself unwilling to correct himself in accordance with the spiritual instructions, he shall then be excommunicated.

6. And concerning the Latin heresy: Christians who have turned to the use of unleavened bread shall return to the Christian observance. If any fail to obey and do not return to Christian Orthodoxy, let him be punished as is written in the Code of the Holy Fathers.

7. And the Great Church shall appoint head priests in all market towns to reclaim front the Latin heresy those Christians who have turned to the Latin faith, and to give them spiritual instructions, so that each one of them return to Christianity.

8. And if a Latin priest be found to have converted a Christian to the Latin faith, let him be punished according to the Law of the Holy Fathers.

9. And if a half-believer be found to be married to a Christian woman, let him be baptized into Christianity if he desires it. But if he refuse to be baptized, let his wife and children be taken from him, and let a part of his house be allotted to them, and let him be driven forth.

10. And if any heretic be found to live among the Christians, let him be branded on the face and driven forth, and whoever shall harbour him, let him too be branded.

11. On Clergymen

And bishops shall appoint clergymen in all of their parishes, both in towns and in the villages. And these clergymen shall be those who have been blessed by their archpriests to become clergy, to bind and to set free. And they shall be obeyed by everyone according to the law of the Church. Whereas those clergymen who are not appointed as clergymen shall be driven away and punished by the Church according to the law.

12. On Jurisdiction

And no laymen shall judge in a clerical matter. And should any layman be found to have judged an ecclesiastical matter, let him pay 300 perpers. Only the Church shall judge.

13. On Bishops

Neither metropolitans, nor bishops, nor priors shall be appointed by bribery. And from now on whoever shall appoint a metropolitan, or bishop, or prior by bribery, let him be accursed and anathematized. And if anyone be found appointed by bribery, let them both be deposed from their rank, the one who made the appointment and the appointed one.

14. On Priors

Priors shall not be removed without an ecclesiastical reason.

15. As priors in monasteries good men shall be appointed who will exalt the house of God.

16. Priors shall live in monastic communities according to the law, and shall confer with the elders.

17. And for each thousand houses let there be fed in the monasteries 50 monks.

18. On Monks

And monks and nuns who are tonsured and live in their own homes, shall be expelled and shall live in the monasteries.

19. And monks native of the region in the church in which they were tonsured, may not live in that church, but shall go to other monasteries, and food shall be given them.

20. A monk who abandons his habit shall be kept in prison until he return again to obedience, and let him be punished.

21. On Heretics Who Burn the Bodies of the Dead

And take people out of graves by sorcery and burn them, any village that does this shall pay a fine, and if any priest shall come to it, let his priesthood be taken from him.

22. And whoever shall sell a Christian into another and false faith, let him be crippled and his tongue cut out.

23. On the Church`s People

And serfs who live in Church villages and summer pasture huts, let them each go to his own lord.

24. Church shall not be bound to supply transport, save when the Tsar himself is travelling somewhere, then the churches shall provide for the transport.

25. And if any Church principal be found to have taken bribes, let all his property be taken away from him.

26. Churches shall be governed by the Lord Tsar, and the Patriarch, and the Logothete, and by none other.

27. All churches situated in the lands of my Empire, my Imperiality releases from all labour, both great and small.

28. The imperial churches shall not be subject to the great churches.

29. And in all churches the poor shall be fed, as is written by the church founders. Should any metropolitan, or bishop, or prior fail to feed them, he shall be deprived of his rank.

30. And monks shall not live outside the monastery.

31. And henceforward no authority may molest a monk or a man of the Church; and whoever shall transgress against this in the course of my lifetime or after the death of my Imperiality, he shall not be blessed. If anyone be guilty towards another, let him sue through the court and by justice, according to the law; whoever shall molest or hinder anyone without judgment, let him pay sevenfold.

32. On Priests

And priests with patrimony shall have their patrimonial estate, and be free, and those priests who have no patrimonial estate, to them shall be given 3 fields according to the law, and the priest who have no patrimonial estate, to them shall be given 3 fields according to the law, and the priest`s cap shall be free of tax. If he take more, he shall do labour for the churches for these lands according to the law.

33. No priest shall leave his master. If his master does not feed him according to the law, let him go to his archpriest, and the archpriest shall tell that lord to feed the priest according to law; but if that master does not obey, let the priest be free to go wherever he wishes. If the priest be the owner of a patrimonial estate, the master shall not be authorized to drive him away, but he shall be free.

34. On People of the Church

People of the Church who hold Church villages and Church lands and have driven the Church serfs or Vlachs away, those who have driven the men away shall be bound, and their land and men taken from them, and let the Church keep them until they have restored the men whom they drove away.

35. People of the Church shall be judged for every plea before their own metropolitans, and before bishops, and priors. And if both litigants are people of the same church, they shall be judged before their own church; but if the two men who litigate are of two churches, they shall be judged by both churches.

36. And as for villages of the Church and people of the Church, let them not go into the villages of my imperial estates, neither for haymaking, nor for ploughing, nor for the vineyards, nor for any labour small or hard. My Imperiality has exempted them from all labour; let them work for the Church only. Whoever shall be found to have driven the serfs of the Church into an imperial estate, and to have disobeyed the imperial law, all property of that self-willed owner shall be taken away from him and he shall be punished.

37. And more on Priors

And my Imperiality has granted churches to the priors, that they may dispose of the whole house, of the mares and the horses, and sheep, and of everything else, and that they be authorized to do whatever is deemed suitable, appropriate and lawful, as is written in the chrysobull of the holy founders.

38. And let them establish in the churches the rules for monastic communities for the monks and in the monasteries too, as may be suitable for each monastery.

39. And laymen may not be exarchs; metropolitans shall not send them to priests, but they shall send one monk with another from priest to priest, to perform the duties of the Church and to take from the priests the Church revenue derived from the patrimonial estate.

40. On Chrysobulls

And all the chrysobulls and charters which my Imperiality hath granted and shall grant to anyone, those patrimonial estates shall be confirmed, as those of the previous Orthodox Tsars, and they shall have full authority over them: either to give them to the Church, or bequeath for the soul, or sell to anyone.

Back to Articles