Who or what are virginals?
A virginals is a musical instrument, a form of one string per note harpsichord, originally constructed without legs and placed on a table for playing. Later models were built with their own stands (as the picture illustrates).
The virginals has its origins in the medieval psaltery (a stringed instrument of the zither family) to which a keyboard was applied, probably in the 15th century. The first mention of the word is in Paulus Paulirinus of Prague's (1413–1471) “Tractatus de musica” of around 1460 where he writes: "The virginal is an instrument in the shape of a clavichord, having metal strings which give it the timbre of a clavicembalo. It has 32 courses of strings set in motion by striking the fingers on projecting keys, giving a dulcet tone in both whole and half steps. It is called a virginal because, like a virgin, it sounds with a gentle and undisturbed voice."
Etymologises say that name may derive from the Latin “virga” meaning a rod, perhaps referring to the wooden jacks that rest on the ends of the keys, but this is unproven. A further view is that the name derives from the Virgin Mary as it was used by nuns to accompany hymns in honour of the Virgin.
In England, during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, any stringed keyboard instrument was often described as a virginals, and could equally apply to a harpsichord or possibly even a clavichord or spinet.