Heritage of the Gediminids' epoch

EUROPE'S ONE OF THE FIRST RULE-OF-LAW STATES

Statutes of Lithuania
The Third Statute of
Lithuania (1588) written
in Ruthenian

When we think of the heritage passed down to us from the epoch of the Gediminids and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Rus and Samogitia (GDL), the first thing that usually comes to mind is the castles, fortresses and other architectural monuments that have managed to survive the centuries. However, there is something that is probably more grandiose than the pieces of architecture, though intangible; something, which makes the peoples of the GDL – Belarusians, Lithuanians, and Ukrainians – full-fledged, if not advanced, builders of the common European space and developers of the European values.

The written monument in question is the Statutes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Rus and Samogitia, more often referred to as just the Statutes of Lithuania. Three editions of the Statutes where issued in 1529, 1566, and 1588 – the times when monarchy was the form of government in most European countries, and so they did not care too much about such things as codification.

The Statutes declared the rule of law and obligation of the state to care for its people. The equality before the law applied to all citizens irrespective of their social status and origin. The Statutes also declared the religious toleration. Originally written in the Ruthenian language and then translated into Latin and Polish, copies of the Statutes could be found in any powiat, and thus were accessible to all.

The Statutes of Lithuania are a codification of all the legislation of the GDL. The basic sources of the Statutes included Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Lithuanian, customary laws as well as administrative and legal practices, statutory laws of Kyivan Rus and Lithuania, and partially the Roman law and the canon law.

State-of-the-art codes, the Statutes of Lithuania covered the state, civil, matrimonial, criminal and procedural laws of the GDL. They provided definitions of many legal terms, such as crime, ownership, agreement, contract, etc. According to historians, the codes had no match in Europe of that time.

A 1744 Polish reprint of the Statute of Lithuania kept in the Trakai Island Castle's History Museum: