Eyn libliche histori von vier Kaufleuten, (History of Four Merchants) treats the popular motif of wagering on the faithfulness of a woman: The merchant John bets against his colleague Ambrosius that he would be able to seduce Ambrosius' wife. Hidden in a trunk, John gains access into the poor lady's bedroom, comes into possession of a few valuables, and also discovers her liver spot. After his wife's infidelity seems to have been proven, Ambrosius orders her death. She, however, begs the man charged with her execution for mercy and escapes. At this point, the story takes an interesting turn that recalls Joseph's tale in the Book of Genesis: the woman convinces the assassin to kill a lamb instead, soak her dress in the animal's blood, and take it back to the jealous husband. This theme resembles the bloody garb Joseph's brothers bring back to Jacob to verify that his youngest son had been killed by wild animals. Like Joseph, the unhappy woman of our story flees to Egypt. Disguised as a man, she arrives in Cairo where she rises into the position of bailiff in the court of King Soldan – another parallel to the biblical narrative. When the merchant John travels to Cairo, sells the wife’s valuables at the bazaar, and boasts about his ruse, the protagonist learns about the deceit. Via Soldan, she invites her husband Ambrosius to Cairo, and at a feast in the palace reveals her knowledge of the hapless enmeshment. While deceitful John meets his execution, Ambrosius and his wife return to Genova to lead a happy life.
The popular story is known in no less than twenty-eight different versions, the dissemination of which seems almost impossible to ascertain. Two Italian sources are obvious: a 14th-century anonymous novella, and Boccaccio’s Decamerone (novella II/9). The transmission of the story went from south to north, as versions in High and Low German, Danish, Swedish, and English are known. Furthermore, there are also a few stage adaptations such as, for instance, Hans Sachs’ Die unschuldig fraw Genura, and Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.
The narrative is richly illustrated: every text page includes a nearly half-page woodcut, depicting all the crucial scenes. The volume opens with a large woodcut showing a standing knight in armour. The following scenes include all important parts of the story: the merchants arriving at the tavern and sitting together at a table; John and Ambrosius’ conversation; John addressing the old woman, who becomes his accomplice; John being carried into Ambrosius’ house in a crate and observing the sleeping couple in their bedroom. A woodcut shows how Ambrosius faints when he learns about his wife’s alleged infidelity; his encounter with the faithful servant; the slaughter of the lamb; the woman’s flight into Egypt in men’s clothes; her arrival at the king’s court; her deeds for the monarch; the bazaar where John the villain reveals his stolen goods; and the events that precede Ambrosius and his wife’s reunion.
This edition is extremely rare, only two other copies are known, in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, and in the Niedersächsiche Landesbibliothek Hannover. We can trace no further copy on the market. Moreover, all other 15th- and 16th-century editions are exceptionally scarce and each survived in only one or two copies or only as a fragment.