Contents Titivillus
The Devil Made me do it!

"The Patron Demon of Scribes"


Titivillus is often referred to with the somewhat fanciful title of "The Patron Demon of Scribes". For much of human history the mechanical printing press did not exist, so any copies of a book or document had to be made by hand. Such copying was always done by professional scribes who were oftentimes monks in the Scriptorium of their monasteries (a tradition we can thank Cassiodorus for, not to mention for the preservation of texts and learning during the "Dark Ages"). Except for the shortest of documents, the work was generally laborious. The text had to be carefully drawn and faithful to the original document. Consider the labor required to copy an entire Bible or Missal, for example! I, for one, would not want to copy all of my Latin prayers by hand, much less an entire Bible.

As with even the best of us, minds can wander from time to time and the monks were no exception. When this happened, errors would be introduced into the text. No one likes to take credit for his own mistakes, and true to human nature the monks invented Titivillus. He was invented somewhat in jest by them, both to take the blame for their mistakes and as a warning to the hapless monk whose mind strayed from the task. Titivillus is first mentioned by name in the Tractatus de Penitentia, written around 1285 by John of Wales, and then again in the 14th century by Petrus de Palude, the Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Titivillus, so the story goes, would wander the earth every day collecting scribal errors until he had collected enough to fill his sack a thousand times. As he completed his collections for the day, the sack would be taken to the devil and each mistake was duly entered in a book against the name of the monk who had made the error. Upon Judgement Day, each of the errors would be read out loud and would be held against the monk who had made it.

Keeping in mind what awaited for the careless scribe come Judgement Day, Titivillus helped the monastic community keep its standards up and its errors down. By 1460, the monks were doing such a good job that poor Titivillus was said to be reduced to slinking about churches and recording the names of women who gossiped during Mass. Hardly the sort of thing a once proud demon would want to stoop to, but times were tough.

However, that situation did not last. With the advent of the Renaissance, the rise of Universities and the merchant class, there was a sudden demand for manuscripts. The scribes were soon at their limits and could not keep up with the demand. Instead of their usual slow and careful process of copying, they had to rush to produce the copies and the error count began to rise rapidly. The monks disclaimed any responsibility for the errors and blamed them on Titivillus. Titivillus was having a field day sacking up errors left and right.

Eventually the printing press was invented and soon traditional scribes were few. Titivillus was again out of a job and soon back to scouring the churches for gossiping ladies. Given the quality of the texts from the 19th century, poor Titivillus never did get to fill his sack very often, at least with scribal or printing errors. He truly was in a wretched state of affairs.

Titivillus was in such a sad state that I suspect he tried to branch out into other areas. Titivillus' hand can be seen in the 20th century with the likes of Murphy's Laws and the Gremlins of World War II aircraft. Admittedly he did make some progress in those areas, but it was rather limited. Nothing like those heady days of the 16th century, so I believe he has moved on to other pursuits.

I believe that Titivillus has found his true calling in this modern age with computers, especially in desktop publishing and the Internet. Given the huge increase in misinformation and printing errors, it is clear that Titivillus has been given a new lease on life. He is back stuffing his bag and making up for lost centuries from the looks of it.

As but one example, in the religion section of a major newspaper, a reporter discussed in some detail the various styles of altars used in churches today. Aside from the reporter's questionable expertise on the subject, it was clear that Titivillus had gotten to him. Instead of "altar", the hapless reporter spelled the word as "alter", which was no doubt politely suggested by his spell checker*. He did this not once, but each and every time the word appeared. It is clear to me from many such examples as this that Titivillus has found his calling in the age of modern communication.

For my part, I have tried to exorcise this pesky demon from my web pages. But alas, I know that I have fallen prey to his distractions from time to time. It can only be under the influence of the master Titivillus himself that I left out the "confugimus" in the "Sub tuum praesidium" from my web page. (A kind note from someone pointed this out to me and I quickly fixed it.) Also, somehow the "Angel of God" turned into the "Angle of God." This particular gaffe went unnoticed for a long time. Fortunately for my ego, I caught that one before someone else did. But again, such a mistake can only be due to the diabolic influence of Titivillus.

So be advised, Titivillus is out there in the press and the internet, stuffing his bag easily a thousand times over. Given the various errors I have seen on the net and in the press, the prudent person should always double check information with other sources. (You wouldn't want Titivillus to add your name to the list now would you?) For my part, I will continue to do battle against him on my web pages. I ask that should you find a case where I have succumbed to his devices, to please let me know so I can fix it.


* Given the perversity of certain Microsoft products, it has been suggested by more than one observer that Titivillus is in league with Bill Gates. I have no hard evidence one way or the other. However, I do know that if you run the later versions of Netscape and type in the words "evil corporation" into the URL address box and then hit enter, you will find that Microsoft comes up at the top of the search list. Hmmmmm....... :-)

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©copyrighted by Michael Martin