A herbal is a book of plants, describing their appearance, their properties and how they may be used for preparing ointments and medicines. The medical use of plants is on fragments of papyrus and clay tablets from ancient Egypt, Samaria and China that date back 5,000 years but document traditions far older still. Over 700 herbal remedies were detailed in the Papyrus Ebers, an Egyptian text written in 1500 BC. Around 65 BC, a Greek physician called Dioscorides wrote a herbal that was into Latin and Arabic. Known as ‘De materia medica’, it became the most influential work on medicinal plants in both Christian and Islamic worlds until the late 17th century. An illustrated manuscript copy of the text made in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) survives from the sixth century. The first printed herbals date from the dawn of European printing in the 1480s. They provided valuable information for apothecaries, whose job it was to make the pills and potions by physicians.
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