YOU may not ever have tried to write a book on medieval English literature.

If you do, you'll quickly realise that it takes a lot of research - which means a lot of reading. There are all those original medieval manuscripts to dig out of dusty archives, for a start - and then the countless commentaries and scholarly journal articles attempting to interpret them to be read and inwardly digested.

When Anna Baldwin lost her sight to glaucoma half-way through writing her Introduction to Medieval Literature, therefore, it posed a bit of a problem.

The retired teacher and academic could still use her computer - the glow from the screen was just enough for her to make out what she was typing.

The problem was, reading. She has a clever scanner at her home off Fishergate which allows her to scan documents and have them read aloud.

But it doesn't really work with medieval Middle English, she jokes. "It has a tendency to mangle it, which quickly becomes irritating!"

Luckily, she had some friends to fall back on for support.

One of them - a fellow York Quaker, Felicia McCormick - spent two years patiently reading texts aloud to Anna so she could make notes on her computer.

"She came and read for me - which is much more fun than reading on your own! - and then she started reading what I had written, as well." The resulting discussions made a huge difference to the book, Anna admits - making it more accessible and readable.

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She was also helped by Jenn Bartlett and Anna Clarke, two graduate students from the University of York's Centre for Medieval Studies, where she used to lecture. They trawled through bibliographies for her to find the very latest references.

She was also able to press-gang various other friends into accompanying her to libraries, she says.

As a result, the finished product is really more of a community effort, she says. She has dedicated it, appropriately enough, to the York Quakers who gave her so much help.

And what about the book itself? It is really aimed as an introduction for undergraduate or A-level students of English.

The aim was to try to introduce them to what Anna describes as the 'glories' of medieval English literature.

Her book covers the period 1300 - 1485. That's a time period that takes in Chaucer, Piers Ploughman and Sir Thomas Mallory, but also much, much more. In fact, it was when written English really began to find its own voice, Anna says. For the first time, literature in this country was being written in English rather than in French or Latin.

It was a period of extraordinary social change and uncertainty. Between 1348 and 1350, the Black Death killed almost half the population of medieval England - as many as 1.5 million people out of an estimated total population of 4 million, according to some accounts.

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Black Death: detail from Dance of Death by Michael Wolgemut (1493)

That calamity in itself led to huge change. Working men were suddenly in huge demand. The old system of rural serfdom began to break down; newly liberated workers were able to migrate to the towns, where they became more educated - and, some of them, learned to read.

In 1381, there was the 'peasants revolt' - a great uprising caused partly by the upheavals which had resulted from the Black Death, and partly by anger at high taxes caused by the Hundred Years War with France. Then, in 1399, the King himself - King Richard II - was deposed by his own cousin, who took the throne as Henry IV. This let to yet more instability.

Small wonder that writing flourished. There was the 'high literature' of Chaucer, who was a member of Richard II's court - but whose writing still manages to be deliciously earthy, as when the Merchant, in his prologue, discusses what a trial it is to be a husband: "Weeping and wailing, care and other sorrow I know enough... and so do many others that wedded (have) been..."

There was the first literature written by women, from the likes of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe (in a wonderfully subtle bit of subversion, as if to underline the theme of the emergence of women, the cover of Anna's book shows a detail from a medieval illustration which shows Mary reading in bed while Joseph looks after the infant Jesus, turning the traditional mother and father roles on their head).

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Julian of Norwich

There were courtly romances, of course: but also the first translations of the Bible into English; the mystery plays (including York's); and a wealth of satire and dissent and political pamphleteering. One poem published shortly after the death of Richard II, for example, takes the fallen monarch to task for his poor reign - but goes further, amounting almost to a call for change in the way England was governed. The poem is entitled Richard Redeless (which means something like 'Richard the poorly-advised') and one short section, quoted in Anna's book, reads as follows: "Allegiance is not confirmed by blows, or untrue judgements, or pillage of your people to please your nobles, but by leadership tempered by mercy..."

All of this literature would have been hand-written, Anna points out - and the more subversive elements of it circulated from person to person rather surreptitiously. But taken as a whole, it provides a wonderful insight into the changes taking place in England.

If you think it sounds interesting, Anna's book is the perfect introduction - well-researched, highly readable, full of original passages from a whole range of medieval poems, plays and pamphlets, and complete with mini-biographies of many of the major literary figures of the time.

The perfect starting-point, in fact, from which to find out more about this extraordinary time in our history...

  • An Introduction to Medieval English Literature by Anna Baldwin is published by Palgrave, priced £19.99 in paperback