That sonofabitch Titivillus

In the 13th Century, the Franciscan Johannes Galensis (aka John of Wales) finished his Tractatus de Penitentia, in which he mentioned a particular pest by the name of Titivillus. This miscreant is a demon or devil who is specifically associated with the persecution of a particular class of people – those who make their living by the pen. We who write, or transcribe, edit, or create by means of the written word, are familiar with the peculiar and diabolically unique type of setbacks which plague our craft. When the ink spills across the perfect calligraphy, when the spelling mistake or transcription error becomes glaringly obvious just exactly as soon as it is too late… or as happened to me today, when you just finished transcribing two pages from the 15th Century Annals of Jan Dlugosz when your own website decides to log you out and trash the whole post. This is the work of Titivillus.

The little sonofabitch in question (Hieronymus Bosch, St. John the Evangelist 1505, detail)

Christian scribes invented, (or, depending on your point of view, “discovered”) Titivillus probably some time in the 9th or 10th Century, and he continued to torment them at an accelerating pace as literacy spread and the written word became ever more important. At last they had a name to put on the particular mishaps which afflict people of letters. His name itself (of course) seems to originate from a transcription error going back to St. Augustine. One 15th Century scribe gives this little sonofabitch voice to lament his own circumstances: “I am a poure dyuel, and my name ys Tytyvyllus … I muste eche day … brynge my master a thousande pokes full of faylynges, and of neglygences in syllables and wordes.

Diego de la Cruz “Virgin of Mercy“, 1485, detail, showing that little sonofabitch Titivillus with a stack of books he probably stole

Now you may not of course believe in Titivillus, having grown up in the ‘modern’ world with many assurances that devils aren’t real. And yet even in our sterile, materialistic world, Titivillus makes himself known. According to the Wiki, for fifty years the Oxford English Dictionary listed an incorrect page reference for a footnote on the earliest mention of Titivillus. The Oxford English Dictionary. His power is not to be underestimated any more than his malice. You may feel that in the digital world you are now free of such archaic medieval monsters who plagued the scriptoria of old. But when was the last time you went a whole week without garbling some text on your phone, or realizing you had a typo in an email just after you sent it? If you ask me, Titivillus is stronger than ever, and is probably on the payroll of multiple Big Data companies who are busy stealing your soul, one byte at a time. Beware, my friends. Beware of that little sonofabitch!

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