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Timothy DeVinney, Author's Editor and Copy Editor
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Who Is Titivillus?

Titivillus (also spelled "Tutivillus") is sometimes referred to by modern writers as the "patron demon of scribes" (or of calligraphy). He is said to have been active in the Middle Ages, entering the scriptoria of monasteries and introducing errors into the scribes' work whenever their attention wandered.(1)

Evidence for Titivillus's story, however, is difficult to untangle. Modern popular accounts tend to be fanciful, while serious scholars are reluctant to commit themselves to any clear narrative and devote themselves instead to mentioning influences spotted, elaborating on affinities detected, or suggesting conclusions that might be inferred. Nonetheless, the best modern study of Titivillus is a scholarly one: Margaret Jennings's article "Tutivillus: The Literary Career of the Recording Demon," in Studies in Philology 74, no. 5 (December 1977).

In part, the confusion is consistent with Titivillus's story: he was an elusive, protean character from the very beginning. His character was not only ambiguous, but was formed before the age of copyright and trademarks, so that he was free to reappear many times, each time with his story embellished in perhaps a different way.

He became an important figure in the exempla of the Middle Ages—homilies with a moral point, which were collected by preachers to impress upon their congregations the practical and spiritual importance of avoiding sin.(2) Titivillus played a part in a set of stories centering around the effects of the sin of acedia (spiritual sloth). Among the laity, acedia could cause participants in religious services to "jangle," gossip, or simply engage in idle talk, while it caused members of the clergy to speed up the recitation of prayers, to mumble their words, even to skip entire syllables.(3)

Titivillus arose out of two different narratives on this topic—one devoted to the recording demon and the other to the sack-carrying demon. Of these, the stories of the recording demon are the oldest, dating back to Babylonian times. They later became familiar in the monasteries of Egyptian ascetics in the fourth century A.D.(4) This recording demon was said to frequent churches and monasteries, and write down the sins of anyone he saw there. The sins he collected were then taken down to hell where they would be counted against the guilty person on Judgment Day. (It is interesting to note that at the beginning Titivillus did not show any particular preference for sins having to do with lapses in writing.)

One frequently encountered version of this story described a deacon who 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.(5)

The other group of stories out of which Titivillus grew began with accounts of the sack-filling demon. Caesarius of Heisterbach in his thirteenth-century work Dialogus Miraculorum (ca.1230), without naming Titivillus, described a "'certain devil' standing in a high place catching 'voces tumultuosas' with his right hand and slipping them deftly into the receptacle held by his left."(6) Other authors, such as Jacques de Vitry in his Sermones Vulgares of the late 1220s, gave more embellished accounts and described an over-burdened sack filled repeatedly by the demon. They were less concerned, however, with tumultuous voices than, as already suggested, with a lack of due diligence—mumbled or skipped syllables, or idle thoughts and words in church.(7)

It was, then, as the sack-carrying demon that Titivillus first appeared by name.(8) He was described in John of Wales's Tractatus de Penitentia (ca. 1285), in a verse that was to become famous throughout the Middle Ages:

    Fragmina verborum titivillus colligit horum
    Quibus die mille vicibus se sarcinat ille.(9)

Roughly translated, this means

    Titivillus gathers up the fragments of these words
    with which he fills his sack a thousand times a day.(10)

Both the sack-carrying and the recording demons finally became known as Titivillus (or Tutivillus) in the fourteenth century. His impact on congregations and his power to terrify the slothful lasted for another hundred years.

By the fifteenth century, however, Titivillus had become more generally an evil demon causing havoc among people everywhere. Some modern writers claim that it was at this point that he became the patron demon of scribes and was blamed for the mistakes they made in copying out manuscripts.(11)

But, while it is true that his influence was fading in religious circles, in drama he was beginning a new phase in his career. He appeared as a recorder of all sorts of sins in the Wakefield Master's Judicium (early fifteenth century)still without any special status as a cause of error among writers or scribes. In the somewhat later play Mankind, Titivillus was the demon of hell, tempting mankind to neglect due attention to any sort of worthwhile endeavor altogether (not to mention prayer) and thus causing him to join the "company of the demonic rogues."(12)

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, Titivillus, if he appeared in dramatic works at all, did so only as one demon among many.(13) And by the time Shakespeare mentioned him, he was almost unknown: his name had become perhaps no more than a general term of mockery. He appears once in Twelfth Night (II, iii, 75) when Sir Toby Belch exclaims, "Tilly-vally, lady," after Olivia's servant Maria complains of his "caterwauling" with two others outside Olivia's windows late at night. (Some scholars even question whether the audience would have known who was being referred to.[14]) And in Henry IV, Part Two, Mistress Quickly carries on a dialogue with Sir John Falstaff in response to his desire to bring Pistol into her inn as a guest:

    Pray ye, pacify yourself, Sir John: there comes no
    swaggerers here.

    Dost thou hear? It is mine ancient.

    Tilly-fally, Sir John, ne'er tell me: your ancient
    swaggerer comes not in my doors. . . .(15)


Jennings describes both instances of Shakespeare's use of Titivillus's name as "corrupt invocations calling upon Tutivillus to collect a remark silly enough to qualify for his sack." (16)

So, whether or not Titivillus was once the patron demon of scribes, his name does seem due for a return to an active role in our vocabulary: with the invention of modern communications and the Internet, someone to whom we can appeal as a collector of janglings, idle talk, and the results of our own inattention will be kept very busy indeed.



1. Marc Drogin, Medieval Calligraphy: Its History and Technique (London: Prior, and Monclair, New Jersey: Schram, 1980), 18-19.
See also
St. Joseph Messenger: The Arts
[URL: http://www.aquinas-multimedia.com/stjoseph/arts.html valid: 2001-10-30] [Return to text.]

2. Margaret Jennings, "Tutivillus: The Literary Career of the Recording Demon," Studies in Philology 74, no. 5 (December 1977): 7. [Return to text.]

3. Ibid., 4, 12. [Return to text.]

4. Ibid., 3, 24. [Return to text.]

5. Ibid., 27-30, 44-45. [Return to text.]

6. Ibid., 13, 36. [Return to text.]

7. Jennings, "Tutivillus," 11-25, quotes from Jacques de Vitry, Sermones Vulgares (late 1220s), in Thomas F. Crane, ed., The Exempla or Illustrative Stories from the Sermones Vulgares of Jacques de Vitry (London, 1890). [Return to text.]

8. Jennings, "Tutivillus," 14-16. [Return to text.]

9. Jennings, "Tutivillus," 16, quoting from British Museum, MS Royal 4, D, IV, fol. 257r. She goes on to point out that "practically identical versions of the Tutivillus exemplum occur in other manuscripts of John of Wales Tractatus or Summa, notably B.M. Royal 10, A, IX,fol. 40; Paris Maz. 295, fol. 86; Bodley 402, fol. 336." (Jennings, "Tutivillus," 16 n. 20.) [Return to text.]

10. Help with translation very kindly provided by Michael Martin, who has a page on Titivillus at http://www.unidial.com/~martinus/Titivillus.html in his site devoted to Latin prayers. [Return to text.]

11. Drogin, Medieval Calligraphy, 19. [Return to text.]

12. Jennings, "Tutivillus," 67, who uses the text of the play in Mark Eccles, ed., The Macro Plays (London, 1969). [Return to text.]

13. Jennings, "Tutivillus," 71-72. [Return to text.]

14. Ibid., 70. [Return to text.]

15. William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part Two (II, iv, 76-78), taken from http://the-tech.mit.edu/Shakespeare/
2henryiv/2henryiv.2.4.html [Return to text.]

16. Jennings, "Tutivillus," 70. [Return to text.]

URLs for Titivillus references on the Web.

Michael Martin's Site for Latin Prayers: Introduction to Titivillus
[http://www.unidial.com/~martinus/Titivillus.html Accessed December 12, 2001]

St. Joseph Messenger: The Arts
[http://www.aquinas-multimedia.com/stjoseph/arts.html Accessed October 30, 2001]



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