The society to sponsor the series was established by the Prussian reformer Freiherr Karl vom und zum Stein in 1819 and the first volumes appeared in 1826 and following years. The editor from 1826 until 1874 was Georg Heinrich Pertz, who was succeeded by Georg Waitz. Many eminent medievalist from Germany and, eventually, other countries joined in the project of searching out and comparing manuscripts and producing scholarly editions. The motto chosen by Klein, Sanctus amor patriae dat animum ("Holy love of the fatherland gives the spirit") is an important example of the coincidence of Romantic nationalism and highly professional scholarship.
The collection consists of five main areas, Antiquitates, Diplomata, Epistolae, Leges, and Scriptores. Many subsidiary series have also been established, including a series of more compact volumes for school use.
The project, one of the greatest group efforts of historical scholarship, continues in the 21st century.