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Yassa (alternatively: Yasa, Yasaq, Jazag, Zasag, Mongolian: Их засаг хууль) was a secret written code of law created by Genghis Khan. It was the principal law under the Mongol Empire even though no copies were made available. Most of this law was supervised by Genghis Khan himself and his stepbrother Shihihutag who was then high judge (in Mongolian: улсын их заргач) of Mongol Empire. Genghis Khan appointed his harshest son Chagatai (later Chagatai Khan) to oversee the execution of it.

Overview

The document is thought to be extremely comprehensive and very specific although no copies or even parts of copies survive. Thought to be written in the Uigur Mongolian script and scribed on scrolls, Yassa was preserved in secret archives and known only to and read by royal families. One reason why the Yassa was only to be read by a select few was because, beyond being a code of laws, it was a work that had profound philosophical, spiritual, and mystical elements.

It is thought to have outlined laws for various members of the community such as soldiers, officers, doctors, and so on. It also addressed and reflected Mongol cultural and lifestyle aspects, particularly those dealing with environmental matters. Death was the most common punishment, including for minor offenses. For example a soldier not picking up something that fell from the person in front of him would be put to death.

The main purpose was probably to eliminate social and economic disputes among the Mongols and future allied peoples. Among the rules were no stealing of livestock from other people, sharing food with travellers, no abduction of women from other families, and no defection among soldiers. It represented a day-to-day set of rules for people under Mongol control that was enforced strictly with very stiff punishments for violators.

People were free to worship as they pleased, as long as the laws of the Yassa were observed.

The word Yassa translates into "order" or "decree". The Yassa was written on scrolls and bound into volumes that could only be seen by the Khan or his closest advisors, but the rules were widely known and followed.

Conjectural laws

Many sources give conjecture as to the actual laws of the Yassa. Much of the Yassa was so influential that other cultures appropriated and adapted them, or reworked them for ends of negative propaganda. (For instance, the number of offenses for which the death penalty was given was famous among contemporaries of the Yassa.) However, as an example, here given is a list of possible laws, from a foreign source (quoted from Harold Lamb's Genghis Khan: The Emperor of All Men, Garden City Publishing, 1927). The examples of the laws were translated by François Pétis de la Croix who was unable to come upon a complete list of the laws. He found these rulings from various sources such as Persian chroniclers, Fras Rubruquis, and Giovanni da Pian del Carpine:
  1. "It is ordered to believe that there is only one God, creator of heaven and earth, who alone gives life and death, riches and poverty as pleases Him-and who has over everything an absolute power
  2. Leaders of a religion, preachers, monks, persons who are dedicated to religious practice, the criers of mosques, physicians and those who bathe the bodies of the dead are to be freed from public charges.
  3. It is forbidden under penalty of death that any one, whoever he be, shall be proclaimed emperor unless he has been elected previously by the princes, khans, officers, and other Mongol nobles in a general council.
  4. It is forbidden chieftains of nations and clans subject to the Mongols to hold honorary tiles.
  5. Forbidden to ever make peace with a monarch, a prince or a people who have not submitted.
  6. The ruling that divides men of the army into tens, hundreds, thousands, and ten thousands is to be maintained. This arrangement serves to raise an army in a short time, and to form the units of commands.
  7. The moment a campaign begins, each soldier must receive his arms from the hand of the officer who has them in charge. The soldier must keep them in good order, and have them inspected by his officer before a battle.
  8. Forbidden, under death penalty, to pillage the enemy before the general commanding gives permission; but after this permission is given the soldier must have the same opportunity as the officer, and must be allowed to keep what he has carried off, provided he has paid his share to the receiver for the emperor.
  9. To keep the men of the army exercised, a great hunt shall be held every winter. On this account, it is forbidden any man of the empire to kill from the month of March to October, deer, bucks, roe-bucks, hares, wild ass and some birds.
  10. Forbidden, to cut the throats of animals slain for food; they must be bound, the chest opened and the heart pulled out by the hand of the hunter.
  11. It is permitted to eat the blood and entrails of animals-though this was forbidden before now.
  12. (A list of privileges and immunities assured the chieftains and officers of the new empire.)
  13. Every man who does not go to war must work for the empire, without reward, for a certain time.
  14. Men guilty of the theft of a horse or steer or a thing of equal value will be punished by death and their bodies cut into two parts. For lesser thefts the punishment shall be, according to the value of the thing stolen, a number of blows of a staff-seven, seventeen, twenty-seven, up to seven hundred. But this bodily punishment may be avoided by paying nine times the worth of the thing stolen.
  15. No subject of the empire may take a Mongol for servant or slave. Every man, except in rare cases, must join the army.
  16. To prevent the flight of alien slaves, it is forbidden to give them asylum, food or clothing, under pain of death. Any man who meets an escaped slave and does not bring him back to his master will be punished in the same manner.
  17. The law of marriage orders that every man shall purchase his wife, and that marriage between the first and second degrees of kinship is forbidden. A man may marry two sisters, or have several concubines. The women should attend to the care of property, buying and selling at their pleasure. Men should occupy themselves only with hunting and war. Children born of slaves are legitimate as the children of wives. The offspring of the first woman shall be honored above other children and shall inherit everything.
  18. Adultery is to be punished by death, and those guilty of it may be slain out of hand.
  19. If two families wish to be united by marriage and have only young children, the marriage of these children is allowed, if one be a boy and the other a girl. If the children are dead, the marriage contract may still be drawn up.
  20. It is forbidden to bathe or wash garments in running water during thunder.
  21. Spies, false witnesses, all men given to infamous vices, and sorcerers are condemned to death.
  22. Officers and chieftains who fail in their duty, or do not come at the summons of the Khan are to be slain, especially in remote districts. If their offense be less grave, they must come in person before the Khan."


After Genghis Khan

Ogedei Khan proclaimed the Great Yassa as integral body of precedents, confirming the continuing validity of his father's commands and ordinances, while adding his own. Ogedei codified rules of dress, conduct during the kurultais. His two immediate successors strongly followed the tradition of the legislation.

The Mongols in various parts of the empire began to add laws more appropriate to their area.

Present Day Influence

The word "custom" is called "Yoso" (Ёс) in modern Mongolian language which is equivalent to "yassa".

In the modern Turkish language (as used presently in Turkeymarker), the word "Law" is called "Yasa", and the adjective "Legal" is called "Yasal". This is in contrast to the Arabic word "Hukuk" used for "Law" in the Ottoman Empire.

Etymology

The word "Yasa" or "Yassa" is existent in both Turkic and Mongolic languages, however it is believed that the word comes from the Turkic verb "yas-" which means "to spread" in English. It is assumed that the word probably originated in Uighur Turkic and was firstly used by Uighur Turks.

Notes

  1. The Secret History of the Mongols
  2. Nişanyan - Türkçe Etimolojik Sözlük


References


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