Errors? Blame Titivillus!

During the Middle Ages, a period during which the vast majority of the population was illiterate, the skills of reading and writing were under the responsibility of the Church, and, in particular, the monasteries, where monks transcribed different (usually religious) texts over and over again in order to preserve them over the years. This activity was carried out manually, for which reason these monks were known as “copyists.”

The monotonous nature of monastic life was exhausting, and the work of the calligrapher, thankless. The copyists worked indoors under the dim light of candles or oil lamps, causing serious vision problems; some even lost their vision entirely. Tiredness and boredom brought lapses in concentration, resulting in spelling errors, omission of words, and ink stains. In some cases, they even drew scribbles rather than writing actual words. It was also common for copyists to add drawings in the margins or comments expressing their feelings when completing this task, such as “I’m cold” or “this page is very difficult.” This phenomenon is known as “marginalia,” and was severely punished.

Beyond the clear damage these errors caused in terms of passing down works to future generations, inattention was considered to be a grave sin. The figure of Titivillus, a small demon who collected pieces of Psalms, was a character created as a joke by copyists to justify their errors. It was believed that Titivillus was forced to find as many errors as necessary to fill up a bag he carried with him a thousand times over. Afterwards, he would go down to Hell, where every error was scrupulously recorded in a large book. Next to each one, he would write down the name of the monk who had committed it so that it could be read on their Day of Judgment. He is also blamed for idle chatter, mispronunciations, memory lapses, gossip, omission of words, inattention, and stuttering.

For some time, the monks started being more careful. While there was a time in which errors decreased, with the rise of universities, the overworked copyists began to make more mistakes than ever. However, they denied any responsibility for them, saying that the devil had tempted them so that they would make mistakes, and Titivillus, recognized as the author of the errata, became a scapegoat of sorts that absolved them of any guilt or charge.

Despite the fact that these errors were eliminated years later with the advent of printing, Titivillus remained popular. For example, many lists of errors started blaming the demon. The character in question became friendly, as well as famous in theater and satirical and comedic narrations, called “mystery plays,” which criticized the vanity of human beings.