Herbals were among the first literature produced in Ancient Egypt, China, India, and Europe as the medical wisdom of the day accumulated by herbalists, apothecaries and physicians. Herbals were also among the first books to be printed in both China and Europe. In Western Europe herbals flourished for two centuries following the introduction of moveable type (c. 1470–1670).
In the late 17th century, the rise of modern chemistry, toxicology and pharmacology reduced the medicinal value of the classical herbal. As reference manuals for botanical study and plant identification herbals were supplanted by Floras – systematic accounts of the plants found growing in a particular region, with scientifically accurate botanical descriptions, classification, and illustrations. Herbals have seen a modest revival in the western world since the last decades of the 20th century, as herbalism and related disciplines (such as homeopathy and aromatherapy) became popular forms of alternative medicine.
The word herbal is derived from the mediaeval Latin liber herbalis ("book of herbs"): it is sometimes used in contrast to the word florilegium, which is a treatise on flowers with emphasis on their beauty and enjoyment rather than the herbal emphasis on their utility. Much of the information found in printed herbals arose out of traditional medicine and herbal knowledge that predated the invention of writing.
Before the advent of printing, herbals were produced as manuscripts, which could be kept as scrolls or loose sheets, or bound into codices. Early handwritten herbals were often illustrated with paintings and drawings. Like other manuscript books, herbals were "published" through repeated copying by hand, either by professional scribes or by the readers themselves. In the process of making a copy, the copyist would often translate, expand, adapt, or reorder the content. Most of the original herbals have been lost; many have survived only as later copies (of copies...), and others are known only through references from other texts.
As printing became available, it was promptly used to publish herbals, the first printed matter being known as incunabula. In Europe, the first printed herbal with woodcut (xylograph) illustrations, the Puch der Natur of Konrad of Megenberg, appeared in 1475. Metal-engraved plates were first used in about 1580. As woodcuts and metal engravings could be reproduced indefinitely they were traded among printers: there was therefore a large increase in the number of illustrations together with an improvement in quality and detail but a tendency for repetition.