The Medieval Institute was launched as a result of conversations between two WMU medievalists, John Sommerfeldt in History and John McNally in English. After surveying the number of faculty members with expertise in medieval studies, they enlisted colleagues in identifying a core of courses that could be used to support both undergraduate and graduate degree programs in the field. A new M.A. program in Medieval Studies was announced in May 1961, and plans were set into motion for an undergraduate minor. In 1962 the program became the Medieval Institute, with Sommerfeldt as its Director.
In March 1962, the Medieval Studies Program sponsored a regional conference on medieval studies—an event that would prove decisive for the future of the nascent Institute. At first a biennial affair, by 1966 the conference had grown to nearly 200 participants from colleges and universities across the United States and Canada. In 1970 the conference became an annual event and moved from March to May.
One reason for the success of the conference was the central location of Kalamazoo in the United States, but the most important was the egalitarian strategy successfully argued by Sommerfeldt. Invitations to present papers at the Kalamazoo conference went out to everyone in the field, and paper proposals were invited from anyone who wished to be considered. Young scholars and graduate students were encouraged to submit paper proposals, and their contributions were by design included among conference sessions. This approach, considered radical at the time, served to open scholarship to a broad range of people, and over the years many young scholars have read their first papers at Kalamazoo.
In 1964, the Medieval Institute started publishing the journal Studies in Medieval Culture, conceived as a vehicle for publishing papers delivered at the conference. The journal was eventually transformed into a series and continues publication to this day. The Early Drama, Art, and Music series was launched in 1977, and Medieval Institute Publications (MIP) assumed its present structure in the following year. In the early 1980s, MIP began its ongoing arrangement to publish titles in the various series of texts and translations sponsored by TEAMS (eventually the Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages).
The Medieval Academy of America held its 1974 meeting in conjunction with the Medieval Institute’s annual May conference, confirming the place of the Kalamazoo conference in the field. The local philanthropist Irving Gilmore gave the financial support that made this joint meeting possible. It was with this 9th conference in 1974 that the number of sessions topped 100. The subsequent growth of the conference in both prestige and size may be traced to the appointment in 1975 of Otto Gründler, first as Associate Director and then in the following year as Sommerfeldt's successor as Director of the Medieval Institute.
The name of the conference was changed in 1979 to the "International Congress on Medieval Studies," a designation that more accurately reflected the scope and ambition of the event, which by that time featured more than 200 sessions. On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the first conference on medieval studies, in 1982, the Medieval Academy of America assisted in the celebration by holding its annual meeting once again in conjunction with the Congress. Through the 1980s and 1990s, and now into the twenty-first century, the Congress has continued to grow, with more than 300 sessions in 1984, more than 400 in 1994, more than 500 in 1998, and more than 600 in 2003. The congress now regularly boasts around 575 sessions, including sessions of papers, roundtables, panel discusssions, workshops, demonstrations, and performances.
When Cornelius Loew—an early champion of the Institute first as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and then as Provost—retired from the university in 1986, the Board of the Medieval Institute established a lecture series in his name which brings a distinguished medievalist to the WMU campus each semester.
With a promised gift from Georgian Rawlinson Tashjian and David Reitler Tashjian, the Richard Rawlinson Center for Anglo-Saxon Studies and Manuscript Research was established in 1994 under the aegis of the Medieval Institute. There quickly followed a series of NEH summer programs on Anglo-Saxon topics directed or co-directed by Paul E. Szarmach, who succeeded Gründler as the Institute's Director in 1995. The Center began sponsoring speakers at the Congress in 1996 and launched its publication series in 2000.
The Center for Cistercian and Monastic Studies was established in 2010 as a research center under the aegis of the Medieval Institute as the successor to the Institute of Cistercian Studies, which had been founded in 1973 as a cooperative venture between Western Michigan University and Cistercian Publications, Inc. Through the Center, the Medieval Institute offers a Graduate Certificate in the History of Monastic Movements, which is open to students enrolled in a graduate degree program at WMU.
The Otto Gründler Book Prize, established by then WMU President Diether H. Haenicke, for an outstanding book in any field of medieval studies was first awarded at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in 1997, and the Medieval Institute continues to award the prize annually.
Medieval Institute Publications, under director and managing editor Simon Forde, continues to publish, co-publish and distribute book series, non-series volumes, journals—including Studies in Iconography and Medieval Prosopography—and materials produced by TEAMS, as well as selected titles originally published elsewhere. It became a member of the Association of American University Presses in 2011 under Patricia Hollahan, who served as managing editor from 2002 until 2013.
The current director of the Medieval Institute is Jana K. Schulman, who succeeded James M. Murray, director of the institute from 2007 until 2015.