4.7 Changing Social Hierarchies: Class and Race from 1450-1750

7 min readmarch 16, 2023

Riya Patel

Riya Patel

Amanda DoAmaral

Amanda DoAmaral

AP World History: Modern 🌍

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Changing Social Hierarchies

During the period from 1450 to 1750, class and race were significant factors that shaped the social, economic, and political landscape of many parts of the world. In Europe, the rigid class structure that emerged during the Middle Ages persisted, with the nobility, the clergy, and the commoners each occupying a distinct place in society. The emergence of the merchant class and the growth of trade and commerce during this period challenged the traditional class structure and created new opportunities for social mobility. In the Americas, the arrival of European colonizers and the importation of African slaves created a complex system of racial hierarchy, with Europeans at the top, followed by mulattoes (people of mixed African and European ancestry), mestizos (people of mixed European and indigenous American ancestry), and Africans at the bottom. These racial categories were used to justify the exploitation and oppression of certain groups and to maintain the dominance of others. In Asia, the caste system in India, which dictated social status based on a person's birth, also persisted during this period and shaped the relationship between different groups in society.
The expansion of trade on a global scale expanded both the upper elite class and the lower labor class. Global trade was insanely profitable and new elite classes enjoyed this wealth. Meanwhile, the population of forced laborers increased, further expanding the wealth gap.

Gunpowder Empires

💣Quick reminder! The gunpowder empires included the Ottoman, Mughal, and Safavid. 
Ottoman society was complex. The Sultans ruled the top of the pyramid and had powers to grant rewards to favored groups, such as soldiers. The middle class included the military, scholars, and other bureaucratic groups.
Within the military, the Janissaries gained power and tried to overthrow the Sultan.
For its time, the Ottoman Empire practiced a surprising amount of religious tolerance for Jews and Christians. Although non-Muslims were forced to pay the jizya tax, many Jews that had been expelled from Spain and Portugal migrated to the Ottoman Empire, which expanded its power.
Meanwhile, the Mughal Empire under Akbar the Great was even more tolerant as they abolished the jizya tax and supported the expansion of Sikhism (blend of Hinduism and Islam).
Women in the Ottoman Empire also experienced some expanded freedoms. Some women, such as Roxelana, climbed the social ladder from slave to wife of the Ottoman ruler Suleiman the Great. This was an extreme case of class mobility, but is an example of what was possible.


The Qing dynasty was ruled by the Manchus, a nomadic ground of people from northeastern China who conquered the Ming dynasty and established their own rule over China. This was yet another historical example of a minority group ruling a majority group (see: Mughals, colonialism). 
Although they adopted political traditions in China, the Qing were committed to making the Manchu culture dominant. During the Qing dynasty in China (1644-1912), it was customary for men to wear their hair in a long braid called a queue. The queue was worn as a sign of submission to the Qing authorities, who had required all male subjects to wear their hair in this manner as a symbol of their loyalty. The queue was worn by men of all social classes, although the specific style of the queue varied according to social status. The queue was worn in a variety of styles, including a single braid that was worn down the back, or two braids that were worn on either side of the head.
The majority Han ethnicity faced the most intolerance from the Qing. Often times, Han men would side with the Qing and carry out mass murders of Han men refusing to wear the Manchu hairstyle. 

Queue hairstyle. Image Courtesy of ziyadtheartnerd.wordpress


European society was ruled by a royal family that gained enormous wealth from trade and corruption. Below the royals was a second class of the nobility, a small wealthy group that owned most of the land.
Nobles had influence in Parliament, but no power over the royals. The commoners were the lowest class and often challenged the nobility. After a failed revolt from commoners, Louis XIV committed to keeping power from the common people or the nobles, “I am the state.” 👑

Louis XIV

Louis XIV, also known as the Sun King, was the King of France from 1643 to 1715. He is known for his long reign and for his significant contributions to the arts and culture of France. Louis XIV was an absolute monarch, and he centralized the government and strengthened the power of the monarchy. He also oversaw the expansion of the French empire and the establishment of France as a major European power. Louis XIV is remembered for his lavish courts and his support of the arts, which helped to make France a cultural center of Europe during his reign. He is also known for his extravagance and his excesses, which contributed to the financial problems that plagued France in the later years of his reign and beyond.

Jewish Diaspora

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Jewish communities faced increased anti-semitism in Western Europe. (Anti-Semitism refers to prejudice, discrimination, or hatred against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group.)
In Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the entire Jewish population, which sent them migrating all over the world. 
Jews of Spanish descent that migrated to North Africa and the Middle East are referred to as Sephardic. Jewish populations descended from eastern and central Europe are called Ashkenazi. Both groups would experience a diaspora by the 20th century.
The Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution were intellectual movements that took place in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. They were characterized by a focus on reason, individual rights, and the power of human knowledge. These movements had a number of important consequences, including the spread of ideas about democracy, freedom, and human rights, and the development of new scientific and technological advances. It is true that these movements also contributed to a greater tolerance for Jews in Europe. During the Enlightenment, ideas about the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings, regardless of their religion or ethnicity, began to gain traction. This led to a greater acceptance of Jews and other minority groups, and to the emergence of new forms of Jewish expression and identity. The Scientific Revolution also challenged traditional religious beliefs and ways of understanding the world, and this contributed to a greater tolerance for Jews and other minority groups. However, it is important to note that anti-Semitism persisted throughout this period and beyond, and that Jews continued to face discrimination and persecution in many parts of Europe.
The Netherlands was particularly tolerant for Europe at the time, so many Jews migrated there and worked in the booming financial industry. This connection would later be used to scapegoat Jews for economic downturns.


In Russia, the social classes were similar to the rest of Europe, except that they continued to practice serfdom.
The Russian nobility, known as Boyars, were members of the highest rank of the feudal aristocracy in medieval and early modern Russia. They were the highest-ranking officials in the government and held significant political and economic power. Boyars were typically members of the nobility, and they held large estates with serfs who worked the land. The boyars played a significant role in the government and administration of Russia and were a major force in Russian politics.
Below them were the merchants. 
At the bottom was the largest class of peasants, many of whom sank into debt and were forced into serfdom. As serfs, they were completely tied to the land and sold when the land sold.

The Americas

The most dramatic social changes happened in the Americas because of the influx of Europeans, the decimation of Indigenous, and the explosion of the African slave trade. Social classes in the Americas were based on race, which is a pivotal difference from the rest of the world.
In the British North American colonies, Europeans, Natives, and African slaves remained separate classes that rarely mixed. Although mixed children existed, primarily because of forced assaults, the societal norm was segregation, and policies supported this tradition.
In the Spanish and Portuguese colonies, things were different. In an effort to whiten society, Europeans were encouraged to procreate with the Indigenous and African communities. 
All of the ethnic combinations created new social classes organized by race with the whitest at the top. The Peninsulares, or Europeans born in Spain or Portugal, were at the top and served as representatives of the royal crown. The Creole class was born in the Americas but had the next highest privileges with their pure European descent. 
🔺The mixed classes, or the castas, had its own pyramid within a pyramid🔺
  • Mestizos = Mestizos are people of mixed European and indigenous American ancestry.
  • Mulattoes = Mulattoes are people of mixed European and African ancestry.
  • Zambos = Zambos are people of mixed African and indigenous American ancestry.
  • All other Indigenous communities
  • African slaves
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🐎Unit 1 – The Global Tapestry, 1200-1450
🐫Unit 2 – Networks of Exchange, 1200-1450
🕌Unit 3 – Land-Based Empires, 1450-1750
🍕Unit 4 – Transoceanic Interactions, 1450-1750
✊🏽Unit 5 – Revolutions, 1750-1900
🚂Unit 6 – Consequences of Industrialization, 1750-1900
💣Unit 7 – Global Conflict, 1900-Present
🥶Unit 8 – Cold War & Decolonization, 1900-Present
✈️Unit 9 – Globalization, 1900-Present
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