Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 October 2013
In the first preface to the Descriptio Kambriae, completed in 1194, Gerald of Wales makes two related assertions: he had written a work of history, and he had sought to imitate the example of Gildas. Although by no means ignored, both statements have remained at the margins of scholarly discussion, which has tended to concentrate on the Descriptio's novelty as a remarkably detailed, albeit partial, account of a medieval country and people as well as on what it reveals of its author's attitude towards Wales and the Welsh. The emphasis on the work as an original contribution to ethnographic writing strongly coloured by its author's complex relationship with Wales remains highly illuminating. However, this essay will argue that, in order to appreciate the nature of that contribution, Gerald's presentation of the Descriptio as a piece of historical writing needs to be taken very seriously, for it was central to his purpose. In particular, it will suggest that, just as Bede's account of the seventh- and eighth-century Britons was informed by a reading of Gildas, so too was Gerald's description of the Welsh. After a brief introduction to the Descriptio Kambriae the discussion will consider how Gerald uses the past in the work in general before moving on to explore the implications of his specific identification with Gildas.