Flutes have existed since Prehistoric times but the recorder as we know it, with a hole for the thumb on the back and seven or eight holes on the front, only appears at the end of the Middle Ages: the earliest still extant instruments were made in the 14th century. Medieval iconography shows many examples of other types of simple and double flutes, probably without thumb hole, and players of "flute and drum" playing a three-hole flute with one hand.

Until the 15th century extant instruments as well as recorders in iconography are relatively small: the biggest depicted recorders seem to be of tenor range. During the Renaissance the recorder, like other instruments, was developped as a family to be played in "consort" (ensemble) of recorders: groups of flutes of different sizes, some of them more than two meters high, were built and adjusted together to allow a homogenous sound. Inventaries of powerful courts often include such a set of recorders; the musicians from Henry VIII of England thus had a set of 76 flutes at their disposal.
Renaissance recorders were built in one or two parts and had a standard range of about an octave and a sixth; the possibility to play higher notes is mentioned in several sources, the most famous being the
Fontegara of Sylvestro Ganassi (1535), but this technique seems destined to the more experienced players.

The shape of the recorder changed again around 1650: it became commonly built in three parts, and modifications of the bore allowed for a wider and easier upper register. Recorder was a popular amateur instrument during Baroque times and many scores and arrangements were edited to suit an amateur audience, but it was not neglected by professional players, who often played several types of instruments.

Recorders fell out of fashion at the end of the 18th century and were reborn during the 20th century, not only as a historical instrument for early music, but also as a fascinating instrument for contemporary music, prompting the development of yet new forms of recorders.