Though the real name of "The Gawain Poet" (or poets) is unknown, some inferences about him or her can be drawn from an informed reading of his or her works. The manuscript of Gawain is known in academic circles as Cotton Nero A.x., following a naming system used by one of its owners, Robert Cotton, a collector of Medieval English texts. Before the Gawain manuscript came into Cotton's possession, it was in the library of Henry Savile of Bank in Yorkshire. Little is known about its previous ownership, and until 1824, when the manuscript was introduced to the academic community in a second edition of Thomas Warton's History edited by Richard Price, it was almost entirely unknown. Even then, the Gawain poem was not published in its entirety until 1839. Now held in the British Library, it has been dated to the late 14th century, meaning the poet was a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales, though it is unlikely that they ever met. The three other works found in the same manuscript as Gawain (commonly known as Pearl, Patience, and Purity or Cleanliness) are often considered to be written by the same author. However, the manuscript containing these poems was transcribed by a copyist and not by the original poet. Although nothing explicitly suggests that all four poems are by the same poet, comparative analysis of dialect, verse form, and diction have pointed towards single authorship.
What is known today about the poet is largely general. As J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon, after reviewing the text's allusions, style, and themes, concluded in 1925:
He was a man of serious and devout mind, though not without humour; he had an interest in theology, and some knowledge of it, though an amateur knowledge perhaps, rather than a professional; he had Latin and French and was well enough read in French books, both romantic and instructive; but his home was in the West Midlands of England; so much his language shows, and his metre, and his scenery.
The most commonly suggested candidate for authorship is John Massey of Cotton, Cheshire. He is known to have lived in the dialect region of the Pearl Poet and is thought to have written the poem St. Erkenwald, which some scholars argue bears stylistic similarities to Gawain. St. Erkenwald, however, has been dated by some scholars to a time outside the Gawain poet's era. Thus, ascribing authorship to John Massey is still controversial and most critics consider the Gawain poet an unknown.