Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Titivillus, The Mortal Enemy of Printers, Editors, Typesetters, and Scribes

Most of Christian folklore doesn't have much resonance in my life. But as I walked to the general store for honey for my Earl Gray tea tonight I realized there is one figure that was created to terrify and keep in line medieval scribes that has also been a hobgoblin in my life, and that is Titivillus, better known as The Printer's Devil. My independent literary press, Zombie Logic Press, has been publishing children's books and books of poetry since 1997. As editor of ZLP I design, edit, and supervise the publication of all of our books. Sometimes I spend months with a manuscript combing it over to find the perfect font, trying to cull out grammatical and spelling errors, and just trying to make it as aesthetically pleasing to look at on the page as I can make it. I do this rather well and have even been asked to do it for others. But perhaps if they knew what I was about to confess I would never entrusted with a manuscript again. In every book I have ever edited, no matter how long I have painstakingly labored over it with hunched shoulders and squinty eyes, I have always found a single editing error in the finished book. One lonely error, but enough to call into question my ability as an editor. Sometimes I see it right away when I hold that first book out of the crate in my hands, other times I notice much later, but it's always there to haunt me. Sometimes I swear it just isn't possible after having read these words dozens, maybe hundreds of times that I could have missed something this obvious. Which is why I tend to believe this demonic entity is more than a creature of medieval folklore, but a real entity and the enemy of all printers, editors, typesetters, and scribes...



Titivillus. The Printer's Devil.


Titivillus, an underling of the horrific demon Belphegor, was said to be responsible for maliciously introducing errors into the work of scribes. But his motivation was said to be pure: to remind scribes to be ever vigilant and concentrate on what they were doing. Also under his purview was recording the idle gossip and chatter of churchgoers so he could report it to his superiors and ensure the guilty would be punished. Not only was he a gremlin saboteur, but a lowly snitch. In medieval times Titivillus was used as a method to teach moral lessons such as remaining respectful in church and staying diligent in one's pious tasks.


But sacred records indicate Titivillus, or an equivalent entity, was active in Egyptian culture, and even the Babylonian culture before that. In these cultures Titivillus performed much the same function, bedeviling scribes and recording the the sins of those who dared transgress in holy places. 

Titivillus eventually petered out as a figure taken seriously in the church, but by this time had made his way into the world of literature as his own character. And to this day we can all identify with returning to some long labored over piece of writing we are proud of and considered finished only to find an error that seems to have appeared from nowhere. Is it a lapse in concentration or The Printer's Devil that causes these blemishes on our masterpieces? The world may never know.

Illustration by Jenny Mathews
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