'Gekokujo' and Revolution in Ascendance of a Bookwormby ZeroReq011,
It's a recurring trope in history and fiction: outsiders are salad tossed into a pre-established society. Due to a whole world of difference, these immigrants arrive with fresh perspectives, new ideas, wide-eyed energy, and ambitions, irrevocably shaking their new world's status quo. Immigrants and isekai are natural marriage partners: Log Horizon, That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime, and Ascendance of a Bookworm are several examples in anime where outsiders from other worlds usher systematic change in their adopted one.
The systematic change these outsiders usher in is comparable to events like the Protestant Reformation, the Japanese Warring States Period, and other periods of “gekokujo”. Gekokujo is a term in Japanese referencing periods of sociopolitical upheaval: times when those of lower position seize control from those of higher status. While Ascendance of a Bookworm (henceforth just Bookworm) is the series's official name, Honzuki no Gekokujo, the series' Japanese title, suggests more than just the singular rise of a girl who loves to read. It presents change worthy of the title “revolution” thanks to the power of books.
Having narrowly avoided being sent away to isekai land by the traditional deadly method of being run over by a truck, only to be sent to fantasy yonder via being crushed books during an earthquake, mentally 20-ish and book-obsessed Myne would unironically like nothing more but to spend her days in this new land surrounded by them tomes once more. Unfortunately, she was reincarnated as a small town kid with exceedingly poor health and into a poor family of book have-nots. The setting is reminiscent of later medieval Europe with a toss of fantasy.
Books aren't nonexistent in this setting, but like its Euro-medieval-inspiration, they are expensive and inaccessible – the property of nobles, clerics, and rich merchants. Cursing the nobles who rule this world under her breath, Myne decides she'll just make her own books, and then many books and cheap books. From that single-minded desire, the total supply of literature will shoot up, and the course of history in Bookworm will shift. But what will that change look like? Will it be exactly like how the mass production of books changed the real world, or will the fantastical elements of Bookworm make that change look somewhat different? Let's dig into the history and worldbuilding of Bookworm.
The Rise of Commoners
While a newly reincarnated Myne begins bemoaning her luck of being reborn in a world scarce of books, this same world has many of the conditions needed for kickstarting mass book printing. Both Bookworm and high-to-late medieval Europe (henceforth just later medieval Europe) started with a society dominated by nobles, and ended with nobles quite diminished and commoners on the rise. Later medieval Europe is defined by trends that led to this development: consistent agricultural surpluses; rapid population growth; burgeoning urban centers; vibrant trade networks; rising middle classes; higher education levels, and impressive practical and technological innovations. Mass printing came out of and accelerated these trends even further.
Agriculture, Cities, and Economics
For fairly large cities like Bookworm's Ehrenfest to exist and expand, they need steady and stable access to food, and a lot of it. The most efficient and long-standing way to obtain and secure this food is through agriculture, and both Myne's world and later medieval Europe enjoyed decades of good harvests. For later medieval Europe, the combination of more efficient farming tools and practices and an extended period of good growing weather are usually cited as responsible for the period's strong agricultural gains. For Myne's world, the use of mana to re-invigorate and essentially fertilize the soil helps explain how there can be food available to support larger cities.
Other economic factors made possible through agriculture also help explain historically the development of larger cities. Food yields well beyond the level of subsistence agriculture allowed greater numbers of people the freedom to pursue other work over farming such as crafts, provided they can trade the fruits of their labor for the fruits of the field. It's naturally more convenient for suppliers, craftspeople, and merchants to concentrate together in central locations. With fewer hubs for manufacture and trade, people could exchange various goods without spending as much time and energy traveling longer distances between different vendors.
Common currencies were adopted to promote smoother trading, facilitating transactions even in the absence of immediate buyers for specific goods. As trade transactions became more complex and voluminous, more robust currency regimes like the tri-metal system were developed to keep up with the extra trade. This system features in Bookworm with varying copper, silver, and gold coin sizes. As trade networks became more complex and voluminous, more space for port facilities, warehouses, and marketplaces were needed to receive, store, and distribute goods. All these economic factors encouraged further centralization of businesses in select locations, encouraging larger city growth.
Patronage, Cities, and Politics
Pure economic factors are not the only cause for city development and expansion; in both the Bookworm world and the real one, politics can also play an important role. In general, where the ruling classes live and rule from can also determine where large cities are founded.
In Japan's feudal era, for example, many castle-towns or “jokumachi” were formed in places where regional samurai powers established their bases at, usually in places of strategic value. Craftspeople and merchants flocked to these castle-town cities to provide for and seek the patronage of the local rulers, growing them that way. In Bookworm, the city of Ehrenfest is large not only because it contains a valuable trade port. It also happens to be the seat of government for the duchy itself, with a large quarter of its urban space set aside for residing nobles. The city's craftspeople and merchants live adjacent to these quarters, providing their wares and skills to both their commoner peers and the ruling elite.
Merchants and Literacy
At the center of these economic and political trends driving city growth are the merchants. Nobles owed their status primarily to jobs reserved for them because of the wealth generated from land ownership. Commoner merchants achieved their status and wealth from moving and exchanging goods. Expanding trade networks and generous noble patronage would lead many merchants to acquire riches and prestige equal to and even exceeding many nobles and their relatively fixed land tract income. Nobles tended to be highly literate as a function of their privilege. Successful merchants tended to be highly literate as a professional necessity. High literacy is as much an expectation for administrating realms and running businesses...
...as it is an accelerant for igniting, engaging with, and spreading revolutionary ideas. Successful merchants needed to record the stock, detail, and value of their wares for later accounting reference. They needed to receive reports of current events from even far flung areas that could affect the supply, quality, and value of their supply of goods. This need explains how Benno from Bookworm, a rising merchant, would know about and understand the practical implications of a fairly recent noble purging.
Literacy and Revolution
A lot of overlap exists between the ability to ruminate on politically-charged documents about dissent and result, and the capacity to digest on more everyday-mundane news reports, instruction manuals, order forms, magico-scientific journals, farming almanacs, and fictional-historical-religious epics.
Long-form writings like books are relatively lengthy and complicated works, requiring tradespeople to have varyingly fairly high degree of literacy to be useful. Books have always had the potential of being immensely beneficial to most as a convenient means of recording, remembering, and sharing knowledge. However, the relative scarcity and prohibitive cost of books, up until the advent of mass printing, limited the benefits of books mainly to either (1) those born with enough privilege to be taught literacy (aka nobles) or (2) those who could make enough profit to make the investment in literacy worthwhile (aka merchants). A by-product of investing in literacy education is a greater capacity to analyze and think critically about many things, including society, politics, and the status quo. Books and other documents being more accessible to people is important to spread ideas of and plans for change and a better tomorrow.
Books and Revolution
Myne is in the process of trying to make mass printing possible—through a Gutenberg-style printing press, perhaps—and she's getting help through merchant investments and connections from Benno. While neither are looking to instigate a sociopolitical revolution —one wants to make more money and the other just wants more books to read—their efforts could have potentially destabilizing effects on the established Bookworm order of nobles over commoners.
While commoner merchants may not be formally educated in statecraft like some nobles, they might begin to feel it unfair for nobles to continue to lord over them. After all, are they now not as highly educated, wealthy, and influential themselves? Those feelings of resentment and injustice burn more strongly with new examples of noble incompetence and commoner abuse. One consequence of medieval independence by commoners toward nobles which, present in Bookworm, is the development of trade guilds designed to collectively protect its members from external interference. Another is the publication and dissemination of declarations critiquing noble rule and advocating for noble reform. The most progressive of these commoner merchants may go so far as to assert that nobles are perhaps no different from commoners and that all people are created equal… or something.
Other relatively educated commoners may start demanding better status for themselves too. If books and other long-form writings become more accessible through greater supply and cheaper production via mass printing, it becomes more practical for other professional tradespeople to invest in literacy so they could take better advantage of their trade's communal pool of disseminated knowledge. The cheaper plant paper that educated craftspeople use to read and learn about methods and tech that could make them better at their jobs could also be the same kind of paper used to receive and spread word about injustices and grievances from their noble lords.
Bookmarking the end of later medieval Europe and the start of the Renaissance is the Protestant Reformation, a religious protest movement-cum-sociopolitical sea change that owes its impact in no small part to the Gutenburg printing press. The fiery messaging behind Martin Luther's famously condemnatory Ninety-five Theses in 1517 against the abusive practices of the Catholic Church caught on so quickly throughout Europe through that invention that the unrest that ensued caught many Catholic clerics and allies in the establishment by surprise.
Luther took advantage of the moveable-type printing press developed in 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg in the city of Mainz to carry his message of protest everywhere, printed versions of which flooded the pool of available literature at the time. This same moveable-type printing press also produced the renowned Gutenberg Bible. The mass-produced Gutenberg Bible offered an example of direct access to the Christian scriptures at cheaper cost to more people without them having to rely on potentially agenda-harboring Catholic clerics to interpret it for them. As a homage, Myne from Bookworm is working on mass producing simplified versions of her temple's own scriptures for educating the general public: a children's bible meant to double as textbooks for teaching letters in addition to gods.
Both the charisma and accessibility of Luther's words gave animated the resentments of those Christians the Holy See alienated. Either out of genuine indignation or political opportunism, those words convinced and compelled many Christian rulers into rebelling against Papal authority. Martin Luther and the printing press engulfed the continent in centuries of subsequent religious warfare. By wars' end, many new Protestant denominations were flourishing, the Catholic Church had significantly reformed itself, and a continent sick of religious violence began to thoroughly embrace secularism.
Books, Worldbuilding, and Bookworm
As cities grew larger, the urban middle class of educated and well-to-do commoners consisting of tradespeople and merchants grew with it. With higher levels of education among commoners came calls for a more egalitarian arrangement between lords and subjects, if not cries for the destruction of nobilities and monarchies altogether. However, as revolutionary as mass printing was in actual history, the conditions of the Bookworm world, shared in many ways to those of later medieval Europe, aren't a one-to-one match to our real one. Myne's ideas and inventions may indeed shake up the status quo, but how exactly and radically things will change remains uncertain.
One reason for the uncertainty is the fantasy elements of Bookworm, and specifically the mechanics of its version of mana. As previously mentioned, mana is an important resource in Bookworm for re-invigorating and fertilizing soil for agriculture. Agriculture is crucial for supporting big cities. It stands, then, that mana is necessary for supporting large and dense societies like Ehrenfest. What I've yet to mention is that mana in Bookworm is a hereditary trait and that the noble class has a monopoly on mana users. What determines who is a noble and who is a commoner in the world of Bookworm can be roughly broken down between those who have mana and those who don't.
Historically, the fragmentation of noble rule and the rise of commoners can be roughly attributed to an eventual consensus: the division in class between the two was arbitrary. The education of many commoners began to rival that of nobles. The nobles periodically continued to appear incompetent and corrupt. The doctrine divine rule that gave nobles cover to stay in power became obsolete as secularism gained in popularity. It became increasingly clear to the public that there was no good reason to hand bad nobles the keys to the city if good commoners could suffice. Whether by graduated negotiation or violent revolution, a devolution of power would eventually occur.
In Bookworm, on the other hand, the food supply being tied to mana inputs makes the existence of some kind of magic class a necessity not only for society's prosperity, but also for its very survival. Mana being a hereditary trait that also gifts its possessors outrageous offensive capabilities makes the status of magical nobles at the top of the sociopolitical order a structural consequence of Bookworm's worldbuilding. It is a feature of inequality engraved into Bookworm's nature whose displacement is on a level that's likely even more difficult than our own history's. We can argue that nobles being special in real life is phony because they're little different from other people.
It's harder to argue that in Bookworm because its nobles are special due to their mana. Commoners rely on the nobility's mana for producing good harvests, and that same nobility can easily kill commoners who oppose them with that same mana. The imbalance of power in this relationship encourages subordination from those who have onto those who have-not, giving seemingly natural legitimacy for the nobles to abuse commoners because of their mana-lacking inferiority. Commoners lacking mana isn't completely true fact though, as some commoners like Myne can be spontaneously born with it much like how conditions can arise randomly from genetic mutations.
However, mana has a deleterious effect on the health of those who possess it without the aid of magical artifacts that can absorb or channel excess amounts out of the body safely. Unfortunately, the only people who have and can craft these items to alleviate these “Devouring” symptoms so far are those of the noble class. As it stands, Devouring commoners either have to seek aid from the nobles at whatever cost, or suffer overtime and eventually perish. Myne's extraordinary circumstances and nature end up affording her a fairly generous arrangement with the temple to treat her Devouring. Others are not so lucky, because the system is overwhelmingly biased towards magical nobles.
Does this mean that the world of Bookworm is doomed to its status quo of nobles oppressing commoners? Not at all. Even if it doesn't neatly follow history, mass printing will help level the playing field between the two classes with education. The nobility may not be entirely overthrown, but their relationship with commoners may have to be radically redefined as commoners start imagining and clamoring for more equality. And because cheaply printed stacks of paper are great receptacles for spreading ideas quickly, perhaps the secrets to treating Devouring commoners with certain magical artifacts or feyplants could be leaked to the public at some point.
If that happens, nobles will no longer have a monopoly on mana, and perhaps someday, a Devouring child like Myne won't have to face the prospect of being separated from her family and becoming a slave to survive. It'll be a time of gekokujo.
Social Scientist & History Buff. Dabbles in Creative Writing & Anime Criticism. Consider following him at @zeroreq011
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