Titivillus, Patron Demon of Writers
Updated: Feb 21, 2022
Today, for a little bit of light relief, I’d like to introduce you to an impish little fellow I came across by accident while surfing the web for something quite unrelated. For a start, the name alone caught my eye, and then when I saw him described as “the patron demon of writers” I just had to investigate further. It was fate.
Titivillus (or Tutivillus) has had a long and actually quite varied career. The writers’ demon connection is fairly modern, but he has had a few jobs along the way, which I shall briefly describe below.
His origins appear to go right back to early Christian times - around the fourth century AD (I said he was old, didn’t I?) when he was just a plain old recording demon, hanging around monasteries and churches to catch anyone who might be sinning by being idle or gossiping. He then wrote these sins down and hurried them off to hell, where they would be counted against that person’s soul when he died. You could say he acted a bit like the Devil’s private detective. Margaret Jennings has written a brilliant study on the little fellow called “Tutivillus: The Literary Career of the Recording Demon” (Studies in Philology 74, no.5 (December 1977)). In it she describes a popular tale that goes like this:
A deacon breaks out laughing in church during the service. Afterward, the priest reproaches the deacon, who defends himself by saying that during the service he had seen a demon writing down the idle words of some of the members of the congregation. The demon quickly filled the parchment on which he was writing, and to make more space pulled at the top with his teeth. The parchment was so overstretched (with the record of so many idle words and mumbled prayers) that it tore, and the demon was sent tumbling onto his back, making the deacon laugh. The priest is duly impressed and the story is later conveyed to the congregation so they realize that their chat during the service will be held against them on Judgment Day, because somewhere there among them is the recording demon observing the prayers "stolen from God" by their negligence.
But Titivillus did not just stick with recording what he heard. By the thirteenth century he started to appear with a sack and the objects of his attention now were people who used speech improperly - babbling, mumbling, and leaving out syllables as well as those who daydreamed or gossiped in church. These thoughts and words were gathered up, placed in his sack and then carted off to Hell in much the same way as the recording scroll was. In around 1285, his name appears for the first time in the Tractatus de Penitentia by John of Wales and became a well-known Medieval verse:
Fragmina verborum titivillus colligit horum Quibus die mill vicibus se sarcinat ille.
Or, in translation:
Titivillus gathers fragments of these words With which he fills his burden a thousand times a day
In other words he was quite busy!
However, Titivillus really came into his own in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. He seems to have been used to frighten people into spending their time in meaningful and spiritual ways i.e. attending mass regularly and thinking Godly thoughts. It is also around this time that he started to be blamed by monks for any mistakes that they made in copying manuscripts as well as more generally for slothful behaviour.
Throughout the next few centuries his popularity seems to have waned and he almost slipped into obscurity. However, these days he appears to have enjoyed a bit of a comeback. His previously sinister purpose seems to have now taken on a lighter meaning. Today, even with our spell and grammar checkers, errors still can creep into anything we write. Never mind, just blame Titivillus - he made us go wrong! And that other vice of writers: procrastination - surely that is just Titivillus tempting us away from the work in hand? And I won't even mention what happens to words in txt msgs. U no wat i mean?
So next time you write anything - be it a blog article or a shopping list - just keep in mind that Titivillus, the patron demon of scribes may be looking over your shoulder, just waiting for that inevitable typo.