It was thought in medieval times that the lion, as king of the beasts, was not only noble and virtuous himself but could recognize these qualities in others. It is presumably by extension of this idea that there arose a belief expressed by a servant-girl in Tobias Smollett's novel Humphry Clinker (1771):
   Last week I went with mistress to the Tower, to see the crowns and wild beastis; and there was a mon-stracious lion, with teeth half a quarter long; and a gentleman bid me not go near him, if I wasn't a maid; being as how he would roar, and tear, and play the dickens. (Smollett, Penguin edn., 140)
   There was a 19th-century belief that lions in zoos and circuses only bred once in seven years, and that when this 'Lion Year' came round, if either a lioness or a cub died, many women would die in 'childbirth. Correspondents in N&Q in 1890 and 1895 reported it from Yorkshire, Cheshire, Sussex, Surrey, Newcastle, and Derbyshire, and it was known in Somerset too; in some cases, deaths of piglets were similarly explained (N&Q 7s:9 (1890), 385-6; 7s; 10 (1890), 13; 8s:7 (1895), 366; Elworthy, 1895: 76; Opie and Tatem, 1989: 232). In Cheshire, the same belief applied to the she-bears of travelling showmen. It is now rare, but not extinct; it was mentioned in Sussex in 1940 (JS), and in Northamptonshire in 1985 (Opie and Tatem, 1989: 232).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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