Titivillus - the Typo Demon Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Titivillus - the Typo Demon

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A devil changing the letters of a word

In the Middle Ages, the vast majority of the population of Christian countries was illiterate. The skills of reading and writing were largely the preserve of the Church and, in particular, the monasteries. There was of course no mechanical means of producing or reproducing text, so everything had to be done laboriously by hand.

After prayer, writing was one of the most prominent activities of the monasteries. Bibles, missals and breviaries all had to be written out many times over, so that they could be distributed wherever required. Demand was always high, and the entire Bible had to be written out thousands of times.

The Scriptorium

The writing room or scriptorium was one of the most important parts of the monastery. It was also one of the most heavily fortified, since the time and labour involved, not to mention embellishments such as gold leaf, made books extremely valuable objects. A single manuscript might take years to complete. So the scriptorium could be a separate strongly-made building within the monastery enclosure, or might even be located at the top of a heavily defended fortress tower.

Theft of a manuscript was regarded as a heinous crime as well as a grievous sin. It was not unusual for a stern warning to that effect to be included in the manuscript. For example, a 12th-Century Bible carries this inscription:

If anyone steal this book, let him die the death. Let him be fried in the pan. Let the falling sickness and the fever seize him. Let him be broken on the wheel, and hanged. Amen.

Monks who toiled in the scriptorium were called scribes. Because of the danger of a disastrous fire, no candles or fires were permitted, so in winter they had to work as best they could in the cold and the dark. The scribe would work all day at a simple desk with a pot of ink, a quill pen (quills were better and lasted longer than reeds), and a penknife. The knife would be used not only to sharpen the quill but also to erase mistakes by scraping, and to smooth down any rough patches of the parchment being written on.

Writing required long periods of intense concentration, and the scribe would pray earnestly for the strength and fortitude to complete his holy task, and for the Recording Angel to give him due credit at the final Heavenly audit. When beginning a new manuscript the scribe would often write a brief comment or prayer, called an Incipit, on the first sheet. Likewise, at the end of the task, a brief comment or prayer would be added to the last page as an Explicit. These might be expressions of the scribe's desire to spread the Word of God, or simply his desire for a fire to warm his numbed fingers or a meal to warm his belly.


To alleviate the boredom of the hours spent scratching with goose feather on goatskin, scribes would play word games and invent pangrams. A pangram is a sentence utilising all the letters of the alphabet at least once each. These days, probably the best known pangram is the one about the quick brown fox, though there are much snappier ones, such as 'Meg Schwarzkopf quit Jynx Blvd' or 'XV quick nymphs beg fjord waltz'. Such sentences were also useful if the scribe had to copy a certain style of lettering: he could write out the chosen pangram many times over till he got it all right. Of course the language used for these religious texts was often Latin, so it would be useful to have a Latin pangram up one's sleeve, as it were. Here are a couple of 8th-Century Latin pangrams:

Te canit abcelebratque polus rex gazifer hymnis.
(O treasure-laden king, the hymn sings of you, and the pole likewise honours you.)
Trans zephyrique globum scandunt tua facta per axem.
(Your deeds ascend across the earth and through the realms of the zephyr.)


Titivillus (sometimes spelled 'Tutivillus') is a demon. He works on behalf of Lucifer, or Satan, or Belphegor, and in the Middle Ages is the one who loves to introduce errors into a scribe's work as soon as the scribe's concentration lapses.

Errors and omissions in the Holy Scriptures were obviously a serious and constant problem, not least because an error that crept in unnoticed might itself have been copied many times over before it was spotted - if it ever was. Of course, after the invention of the printing press an unnoticed error would be reproduced even more rapidly. In 1561, a document entitled Anatomy of the Mass, edited by a monk, was found to contain an enormous number of errors. The monk said that the devil had caused the printer to produce the errors. At that time the Pope ordered a printing of the Bible, and promulgated a Papal Bull resulting in automatic excommunication of any printer who introduced any alteration to the text. Nevertheless, the result was so bad that correction slips had to be printed, cut out, and pasted in the right position in every single copy. This incident was regarded as one of Titivillus's great triumphs.

The precise nature and origins of Titivillus are lost in the mists of time. He was an elusive character, and appeared at different times in different guises. Stories of Titivillus were current among the Egyptian monasteries of the Desert Fathers in the 4th Century AD. There he was characterised as a recording demon, always to be found in the churches and monasteries meticulously writing down all the sins he could find people committing. These would be faithfully reported back to Satan, who would be sure to bring them all up again come the Day of Judgment.

Idle Gossip

In particular, Titivillus would note all the idle gossip and chit-chat that inevitably went on during the long church services. This was of course a warning to congregations that any lack of concentration during prayers would not go unnoticed or unpunished, since such negligence of their devotions was depriving God of the prayers and praise that were His due.

The Demon with the Sack

At other times, Titivillus would appear as a sack-filling demon. A 13th-Century work entitled Dialogus Miraculorum (by one Caesarius of Heisterbach) describes a demon, positioned high up, catching idle chat as it floated up to him and stuffing it all into a bag he carried for the purpose. Other works of that period, for example the Sermones Vulgares of Jacques de Vitry, also describe the demon with the large sack, though sometimes not concerned so much with catching chat or idle gossip in church as with mumbled or garbled prayers, perhaps those uttered more in haste than reverence.

Titivillus seems to have first appeared by that name, complete with sack or bag, in roughly 1285 in the Tractatus de Poenitentia by John of Wales. This contains the following verse, a verse which was to become well known throughout the Middle Ages:

Fragmina verborum
Titivillus colligit horum
Quibus die mille
Vicibus se sarcinat ille.

Scholars are still debating the precise meaning of this verse, but it seems to mean something along the lines of 'Titivillus packs his bag with verbal detritus a thousand times a day'.

A similar comment was made in the following century by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Petrus de Palude (or Peter Paludanus, c 1235 - 1342, possibly the author of Tractatus de causa immediata ecclesiastice potestatis). Petrus comments in a sermon that Titivillus goes around unseen, collecting garbled bits of psalms and other stray words, and it is reasonable to assume that he would cast his beady eye on the texts and manuscripts, eagerly stuffing errors into his sack.

The Middle Ages

Titivillus is often found in later Medieval art and literature. Particularly in the East Midlands of England, there are a number of churches containing paintings from this period on the subject of Idle Gossip. These tend to show Titivillus in church, collecting gossip and trivia (usually from women), and Titivillus notably figures in the Medieval Morality Play Mankind, which is written in East Midlands dialect. He also appears in an anonymous 15th-Century poem (in the Bodleian Library, Oxford):

Tutivillus, the devil of hell,
He writeth har names, sothe to tell,
Ad missam garulantes.
Better wer be at home for ay
Than her to serve the Devil to pay
Sic vana famulantes.
Thes women that sitteth the church about,
Thay beth al of the Develis rowte,
Divina impedientes...

The Renaissance

By the time of the Renaissance - the revival of art and literature under the influence of classical models in the 14th-16th Centuries - many trades, professions and occupations had their Patron Saint, who would guard and protect them and to whom they could pray for inspiration and encouragement. Titivillus, on the other hand, became established as the Patron Demon of Writers. At this time there was a great upsurge in learning and the arts, the universities were expanding, and the merchants becoming more active too. This all called for a huge increase in the output of written material of all kinds.

In the good old days, time was not necessarily of the essence in a remote monastery when it came to producing an illuminated Bible (one with pages or initial letters richly decorated with gold, silver, or coloured designs). A scribe could toil for many years over a single great work. But in the Renaissance everything speeded up1. The result was, predictably, a huge increase in the number of errors. But now the monks had a scapegoat - Titivillus. Errors and typos were not their fault - they were deliberately introduced by that demon.

Over the centuries, a change had taken place in the prevalent notions of good and evil, virtue and vice. It used to be that every virtue had a corresponding vice or sin, so in a sense they could cancel each other out, and a person could accumulate both debits and credits to be balanced out on the Day of Judgment. But later the concept of a religion of evil came to the fore. There were powers of evil opposed to the power of good, the opposing powers vying with each other for possession of immortal souls. Titivillus was shown as mocking the words of Jesus or the disciples in the Gospels, and replacing phrases such as 'O God in heaven' with 'O Satan in Hell' - that sort of thing. Demons were increasingly seen, not merely as recording such sins as occur, but as actively encouraging sin and transgression in any devious way they could, so as to lure the good people into the sulphurous pit, the lake of flames in the depths of the abyss. Hence the idea that 'it is necessary only for the good man to do nothing for evil to triumph'2.

The Internet Age

In the Internet age we need Titivillus more than ever. We need him in his role as gatherer of all the idle Internet Chat and gossip, to stop it overwhelming us. And we need him as the Renaissance scribes needed him, as a scapegoat: the malevolent entity upon whose head we can heap all the errors and typos and omissions and inaccuracies that we find daily on the Internet.

But perhaps all our spelling checkers, and grammar checkers, and fact checkers, and online dictionaries, and search engines, and editors, and sub-editors will one day finally render Titivillus redundant?

Don?t bet on ti...

1This was probably the era of the invention of the copy deadline.2A dictum attributed (in a number of forms) to Edmund Burke (1729 - 1797), an Irish-born politician and man of letters, but not found in his writings.

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